Shakespeare’s R & J, Arts Theatre

Romeo and Juliet, as played by an all-male group of four actors who are playing schoolboys putting on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. Written for UK, September 2003

There are, it’s sometimes said, only seven plots in existence. If that’s true, one of them – love across the divide – is epitomised by Romeo and Juliet. It’s the classic tale not only of enemies being lovers, but of children being thrust into the violent, bloody, tragic world of adulthood before their time.

Writer/director Joe Calarco’s new adaptation, transferring from New York for a limited run at the Arts Theatre, accentuates the theme of premature adulthood by relocating the drama to an American boarding school with more than a little echo of Dead Poets Society.

Four schoolboys rebel from days full of confession, conjugation and social etiquette by reading some proscribed Shakespeare after lights out. Starting by finding innuendo in many of the lines (admittedly not a difficult thing with the Bard), things take a more serious turn with the first fight scene, and even more so with the first appearance of Juliet. Not for this all-male production a simpering thirteen-year-old: while the initial appearances of the nurse and mother start off as camp pastiches, when the ‘heroine’ arrives there’s a sign that these four students are beginning to take their roles more seriously.

What follows has all the promise of an intense studio performance: with minimal props (a couple of chairs, a book and a bolt of red silk) and the bare minimum of cast, there are some extremely powerful scenes – but it’s Shakespeare rather than Calarco we have to thank for those. While the framing device of having a quartet of schoolboys perform the play throws some extra frisson into the developing passion of the star cross’d lovers (are they acting? Or are the two pupils developing feelings for each other?) there are all too many times where the framing device intrudes.

While all four actors (Matthew Sincell, Jason Michael Spelbring, Jeremy Beck and Jason Dubin) never break from character, their characters themselves do. By necessity, when ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’ face opprobrium from their fellow students after their romance is discovered, the same actors have to shift from being disgusted with them to being their best friends in a trice.

The play-within-a-play setting, the theme of loves discovered at night, of identities assumed and discarded, don’t sit well with the intrinsic tragedy of possibly the most tragic of all plays. They’d be far more suitable for A Midsummer Night’s Dream – indeed, throughout Shakespeare’s R+J there are allusions to the latter, including a well-realised reworking of Puck’s ‘if we shadows have offended’ epilogue. Strip the artifice away, though, and you would have the makings of a truly great play – a contemporary-dress, all-male, minimal-cast telling of the fearful passage of a death-mark’d love.

Now that would be a play worth seeing.

• Originally published by UK (link no longer available)

The Laramie Project: Death of an American icon

Review of the stage play about the death of Matthew Shepard, performed at the Cochrane Theatre in March 2003. Written for UK.

Every so often, society makes a hero or heroine of a victim of particularly heinous crimes – Stephen Lawrence, Damilola Taylor… Matthew Shepard. The gay Wyoming 21-year-old college student who was brutally assaulted, then left tied to a fence until he was found eighteen hours later, became known around the world even as he lay in hospital in a coma, awaiting certain death.

Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project visited Shepard’s hometown of Laramie and interviewed many of its residents – be they people who knew either Matthew or his murderers, or other townsfolk who got caught up in the events that followed his death. Those interviews form the basis of his play, The Laramie Project, which has started its first London run.

And it’s the play’s commitment to preserving the nature of the source material that marks one of the major faults with the piece. Instead of an unfolding drama, the story is presented in the main as a series of monologues, as the small troupe of student actors imitate Laramie residents with variable degrees of success. Some scenes become incredibly engaging, drawing the audience in to the story with eloquence and grace – only for the next character in the line to break the spell. There are some scenes of real power: when the ER doctor who treated both Matthew and one of his attackers on the same night muses on the painful irony of that situation, one felt the seed of a truly brilliant dramatic work just waiting to take root. Sadly there are far too many other scenes that fall short.

This is not, for the main part, the fault of the actors. As a group of American college students, even the worst actor is of a high standard. Indeed, one performance, that of Fred Sykes, is mesmerising in its intensity throughout. For all the Hollywood stars visiting the West End stage, you would be hard pressed to see a finer display of American acting ability.

It is the content of the play that ultimately lets it down. One cannot help but feel there is an element of unintentional hypocrisy on display. At one point, a student recalls how at a candlelit vigil for Matthew, someone stood up and exhorted the crowd to show the world that Laramie’s “not that kind of town” – but it is, she notes. It’s a moving speech, one that makes us start to think about the nature of public mourning, and the seeming need to be seen to grieve (as evinced in this country with Soham, or Princess Diana). And yet, when later we hear how a small candlelit procession at the end of a homecoming parade grew to 500 people and eventually outnumbered the parade proper, we are asked to accept that at face value without asking, “why?”

The lack of focus that runs through the play means that we get portrayals of the actors who took the initial interviews that at times actually detract from the power of the scenes they’re supposed to be witnessing. At one point, as the local pastor recounts how he wishes that Shepard was able to reflect on the deviant nature of his lifestyle while he was tied, bleeding, to the fence, the power and horror we should rightly feel is completely undermined by the two interviewers’ need to hug each other afterwards. It’s an unnecessary counterpoint of the sort that dogs the whole production.

That said, occasional flashes of brilliance show just how strong this cast, and this production, has the potential to be. The image of Shepard, with the only part of his body not covered in blood the tracks on his cheeks where his tears had washed him clean, is one that will remain with you far after you’ve forgotten the rest of the play – as will Dennis Shepard’s statement to the court; again, Fred Sykes owns the auditorium as he asks the judge not to pass a death sentence, not out of mercy, but because a life sentence in full knowledge of what the killer has done will wreak far more vengeance.

If the rest of the play were of the calibre of those moments, this would be a classic. As it is, this is a piece that causes us to think more than the playwright probably intended, and in different ways. While good drama should always let us find our answers, this is one drama that requires we start asking our own questions, because those on stage don’t let us off from that task.

Diary of a PWA

We have become somewhat inured of late to the phenomenon of newspaper columnists detailing the minutiae of life under the shadow of a terminal illness. The Observer’s Ruth Picardie and The Times’ John Diamond both arguably became more famous as cancer sufferers than they ever had been as the accomplished journalists they already were.

There was a period when a fatally ill columnist was the latest accessory for the newspaper about town, even deserving a satirical sideswipe from Brass Eye creator Chris Morris in his Time To Go column for the Observer.

It’s hard, then, to remember how much Oscar Moore’s columns for the Guardian, PWA (Person with Aids) affected their readers. Moore had been HIV positive for ten years until, on New Year’s Eve 1993, he came down with a severe attack of shingles that was to result in the first of many admissions into hospital. The ups and downs of his condition, his medications and his state of mind were chronicled from 1994 to 1996 with a characteristically frank style that often included a large quantity of dry wit.

Adapted and directed by Malcolm Sutherland, PWA takes Moore’s words and places them in the mouth of actor Pip Torrens, leaving him with just a minimalist set and a couple of slide projectors to accompany his monologue. It’s all that’s needed: anything more, and the impact of his words would be drowned out.

Initially, the slide projectors illuminate the breaks between columns with brief, clinical descriptions of some of the terms used: septicaemia, CMV, EBV, 3TC, Retrovir. As Moore, who as a film critic valued his sight, finds that a virulent strain of herpes called cytomegalovirus is slowly destroying his retina, we also see a blown up image of the viral cell; when in words Moore describes it as ‘the Pac-man of herpes’, chomping away at his vision, the sight of the spherical virus adds an extra layer of poignancy to the rich metaphor.

Any play that you know will end in the main (in this case, only) character’s death always runs the risk of falling into melodrama. Here, there is no chance of that, with Torrens’ superb performance the perfect counterpart to Moore’s writing. The actor holds the audience with him every step of the way, whether it’s as the Oscar who finds wit in minor inconveniences or the bemusement of children, the Oscar who has to deal with excruciating pain and deep depressions, or the Oscar who can no longer hide his anger about the prejudice faced by gay people with Aids. ‘We’re guilty until proven dead,’ he rails at one point, noting how the media always refers to HIV+ haemophiliacs as ‘innocent’.

As the stage version of Oscar nears the end, he turns to the topic of the columns he’s been writing. It’s a weapon, he explains, a means of fighting the virus. After all, while HIV can mutate enough to render medical therapies useless, it hasn’t yet learned how to type. Moore was being modest: not only did his words help him fight his own battle, but they also contributed to the battle against ignorance and homophobia. This superb stage production deserves to continue Oscar Moore’s legacy for some time to come.

* _**Diary of a PWA** was at the Drill Hall, London. This review was written for UK (link no longer available)_

New Boy, Pleasance Theatre, Islington

When adapting any book for the stage, the original writer’s work, more often than not, gets diluted. Not so with New Boy. Director Russell Labey has adapted William Sutcliffe’s first novel faithfully, which unfortunately means that the novel’s flaws are magnified in front of an audience.

Sixth former Mark (Neil Henry) is drawn into a sense of awed fascination when new boy Barry, played by Leon Harris, arrives in school. As their friendship grows, the boys realise they have one big thing in common — their virginity. The main difference, though, is that every woman (and practically every man) wants to relieve Barry of this burden. The closest Mark can get, however, is a drunken fumble at a crass disco.

As Barry explores his newfound sexual prowess, he embarks on a dangerous affair with his French teacher, Mrs. Mumford. Once the affair is exposed (by the teacher herself in a brilliantly comedic and sensuous monologue from Heather Wright) the couple move in together, fuelling Mark’s jealousy – an emotion which goes into overdrive when Barry, close to the play’s conclusion, embarks on another affair even closer to home.

Throughout, Neil Henry’s Mark is a fabulous concoction of adolescent angst. Whilst his narrative monologues are occasionally gratingly overwritten, Henry’s delivery and acute sense of comic timing make the show. The audience is completely drawn in by him and, like his character, becomes tantalised by the best friend that he sees. Sadly, unlike the fictional Mark, we can see Barry/Leon Parris’ faults all too plainly: of the otherwise impressive cast of five, his is the weakest performance by far.

The relationship between these two young men is the driving force behind the book and the play. A shame, then, that it is not as fulfilling or convincing as it should be. This is due, in part, to inherent weaknesses in the source material, but responsibility lies also in Labey’s adaptation. In the play’s closing stages Mark is berated by his friends for being blind to the situation unfolding around him. However, the subtle clues in Sutcliffe’s book have been omitted, leaving the audience as much in the dark as Mark. While on the page we can recognise a young man whose introspection renders him blind and deserving of the name-calling he receives, on stage we are as confused as he is when new relationships surface out of nowhere.

Despite this criticism, the cast generally engages the audience well, with able support from Josh Neale and Clare Buckfield. In the main, the script varies from the witty to the hilarious, albeit with a convincing undercurrent of pathos. Quite why it was deemed necessary to shoehorn in so many late 80’s disco numbers to unsuccessfully create a sense of period remains a mystery. The character observations and the comments on schoolroom attitudes towards sex and homosexuality, surely, are as relevant in a truly contemporary setting, if not more so.

In short, Mr. and Mrs. Labey, your son Russell has produced a competent and not unenjoyable comic drama that fails to achieve the predicted grade. B-: could do better.

* Originally written for UK (no longer online)

Kate Dimbleby: Finger Clickin’ Good

As a nation, we’ve come to expect impersonation of former singing stars to be accompanied by dry ice, sliding doors and Matthew Kelly. No matter how many Stars In Their Eyes she may have, though, Deirdre the housewife will, after her three-and-a-half minutes of fame, still be a housewife.

When Kate Dimbleby dons the peroxide wig to become Miss Peggy Lee, however, she assumes the mantle of star that deserves to stay with her.

Dimbleby relates the tale of the singer, who was born Norma Deloris Egstrom, through a variety of songs from all eras of her long-running career. The monologues that intersperse the singing similarly jump about, from Norma’s discovery by jazz legend Benny Goodman, to the failure of her marriage to the alcohol-soaked David Barbour, back to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepmother.

Despite the potentially heavy material though, both Dimbleby’s charisma and writer Lucy Powell’s script keep the darker side of Miss Lee’s life, as the woman herself did, backstage, letting the voice, the presence and the wonderful songs speak for themselves.

In itself, this is another blessing: Dimbleby is quite obviously far more comfortable imitating Peggy Lee the singer rather than in spoken form.

The cabaret-style setting is an undoubted advantage, with the enforced intimacy of the King’s Head allowing Dimbleby to connect with her audience far more easily than a larger venue would permit. Even here though, the modern world creeps through. Somehow one imagines that _These Foolish Things_, _I’m a Woman_ and _He’s a Tramp_ deserve to be viewed through clouds of cigarette smoke and with the scent of bourbon mash in the air. A no-smoking policy and a hint of diners’ roast chicken don’t seem quite right.

After the interval, Dimbleby seems to drop the narrative monologues altogether, opting for a raucous and fully enjoyable romp through some of the highlights of her heroine’s back catalogue.

And it is here, where the reluctant actress fades away and the singer emerges, that you begin to care less and less whether or not you’re watching Kate Dimbleby or Peggy Lee. If the seats weren’t packed so tightly together, everyone would be dancing.

Fever has been dubbed a one-woman show, but that only gives credit to one quarter of the cast. The youthful backing trio of Julian Hinton on piano, Jonty Fisher on bass and an impossibly fresh-faced Ben Reynolds on drums play their entire set with great smiles on their faces: when the band is having this much fun you can’t help but join in.

One almost misses the fact that, come the leading lady’s first bow, she hasn’t even sung the title number. That little problem is not overlooked for long, and is definitely worth the wait: as Kate Dimbleby encourages the audience to provide the finger-clicking accompaniment, she launched into Fever with a sultriness that even Miss Lee, in her prime, could hardly manage.

With a sassiness and sense of humour that cannot fail to please, Dimbleby proves that she is indeed one hell of a woman – W-O-M-A-N…

* This article was originally written for UK