Saturday, 30 June 2012


To the National to see Detroit, the latest import from the ever exciting Chicago based Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Unlike the epic August: Osage County, which lifted the London Theatre a couple of years ago, the company are, this visit, offering a smaller scale four hander, which nevertheless forensically explores and destroys some key planks of the American dream.

Set in the neighbouring backyards of two families on the outskirts of Detroit writer Lisa D'Amour paints a miniature study of a decaying society facing up to a new depression. Mary and Ben run their modest home with calm efficiency, catalogue furniture and a friendly barbecue to welcome new neighbours Sharon and Kenny, but from the first moment, when Mary struggles to put up the umbrella designed to keep their patio table in the shade, we sense that a storm is coming.

Steadily the play reveals secrets. Kenny and Sharon are recovering drug addicts and fraudsters, Mary struggles with a massive drink problem and Ben is wasting his life away on the Internet, where he has taken on a British avatar. As the characters get to know each other they begin to spiral downwards, each slip of the mask of respectability is treated as a step on the journey to self-realisation, but is, in fact, just another stage in the path towards oblivion.

In one wonderful moment the couples reconfigure Mary and Sharon decide to reconnect with another American ideal and go hiking in the great outdoors. In response Kenny and Ben prepare to celebrate their own vision of America with a night of libertine freedom and debauchery, on the town. The plans are curtailed when the girls, too infantile to carry through their romantic plan, return to the comfort of their home, leaving the men, who you suspect are also unfit for their self-appointed role, hanging out to dry. D'Amour is clear that the twin desires of convenience and dependence are natural, but ultimately destructive bedfellows. The acting is universally superb.

Detroit isn't a classic, but in the chaos of the final scene, which reminded me of the denouement of Jim Cartwright's Road - another play eulogising the collapse of a culture - we glimpse the hedonistic death throws of America; a society in terminal economic decline.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Teenage Cancer Trust Conference.

To the very plush headquarters of the Royal Society of Medicine in Wimpole Street for the Teenage Cancer Conference. We'd been worried about our pitch before arriving, but we needn't have. The audience quickly bought into the work. After we'd run the play through once we invited the audience to ask the characters questions - looking for the delegate who would be tempted into offering advice or an alternative approach to the problems so that we could encourage them on stage to demonstrate their idea.

I really enjoy the mischief of this form of jokering. It's a development from Brecht's work on the Street Scene where a confused judge asks a witness of a traffic accident to 'act out' what happened. It's a brilliant way to trick those who are either reluctant to or simply don't believe they can 'perform' to move from commentary into action. There are always experts in any field who prefer to offer advice rather than demonstrate their understanding, but as Boal, building on Brecht's work, rightly suggests 'solidarity means running the same risks' and the purpose of a forum theatre event is to collectively find resolutions to problems that effect us all.

It didn't take long for the doctors in particular to comment on the scenes and, playing up our naivete, we were able to tease them up to try out their ideas and explore in more depth some of issues behind teenage cancer care.

The real coup came towards then end when Simon Davies, the Chief Executive of TCT, accused Joe's character Dr Rudlin, of being 'crap at talking to young people' This of course was manna from heaven for Joe who responded perfectly, feigning offence and insisting Simon come up onto stage to show exactly how to deliver test results back to a sixteen year old and his Mum.

From here Michael and Katie took over as John and his Mum, playfully working together to antagonise the situation, asking questions of Simon's Doctor and demonstrating, in front of 300 delegates, how even the experts find it difficult to talk sensitively about cancer. It was a very good way to end the session.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Comfort of Failure.

And so, inevitably, England lose on penalties in the quarter finals of a major tournament.

Playing Italy, with a chance of going through to meet Germany in the semis we did, what we've become so proficient at over the last twenty years. Having spent most of the 120 minutes of the match and extra time, throwing our bodies in the way of through balls, crosses and shots, Ashley Cole rather tamely passed his penalty into the grateful hands of the Italian keeper Gianlugi Buffon after Ashley Young had over egged and smashed his effort against the crossbar. It was just left for Alessandro Diamenti to roll in the winning effort past Joe Hart to condemn all the flags of St George back to their cupboards for at least another couple of years.

Strangely though the defeat felt different. It was clearly deserved, Italy had done everything in normal time, except for put the ball in the net, but that's not stopped us from wailing and gnashing in the past. No this time there was a sense of realism and most people in the pub simply resumed the conversations they'd been involved in, in the build up to the match.

So what's changed? Perhaps the refreshing lack of expectation has kept us sane? Perhaps the knowledge that with the Olympics on the horizon all is not lost in the search for a scintillating sporting summer? Perhaps its the sense that finally Lamps, Gerrard, Terry and all the other members of the over-hyped golden generation have passed their sell by date and that we can rebuild using the nucleus of young players bloodied in this tournament? Perhaps we're just weary of disappointment? The comfort of failure needs no further excuse. If England ever win again it'll be a surprise, catching us unaware when we least expect it. Momentum built from the lowest base. A lucky deflection wrong footing the world's natural champions. It'll happen but only when we're not looking. And in tradition of English heroism, It'll be all the more glorious for that.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Birthday at the Court.

To the Royal Court to see Joe Penhall's latest play Birthday. Set in a near future, it's a dystopian and, at times, disturbing role reversal satire. 

Ed, played with boyish self-importance, by Stephen Mangan, is in the early stages of labour. His executive wife Lisa, thoughtfully realised by Lisa Dillon, can no longer give birth following the traumatic delivery of the couple's first child and so they've opted to be guinea pigs for this womb transplant proceedure, recently offered on the NHS.

Whilst he twists, turns, moans and frets, she tries, mostly in vain, to sympathise with the indignity, fear and pain. If anybody were in any doubt that giving birth is not a shared experience the simple device of switching the genders operates as a salutary reminder to the men in the audience of the often traumatic experiences women go through in childbirth. It is, by turns, hysterical and horrific.

Penhall's approach though is incredibly even handed and Lisa quickly loses patience with her husband's increasing sense of discomfort demonstrating that concern and indifference are not gender assigned roles. Throw in an uncommunicative African midwife, immune to abuse and unconcerned at the singular worries of middle class parents and an obstetrician who pities the sacrifices those with children have to make and you have all the ingredients for a rather wonderful and thought provoking hour and a half.

Behind it all though is a stinging, and perhaps surprising, attack on an under resourced NHS. How ever much enjoyment is gleaned from watching a self-centred man having to undergo the pillage of childbirth you can't help but share the couple's frustration at the lack of information, support and pain relief on offer. Things work out well in the end, but it's clear that Penhall, who recently became a father himself, has written a play heavily scarred by his own observations of state funded maternity care.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Rewrites and Insights.

Second day of rehearsals on John's Story, working on the comments that have come back from the Teenage Cancer Trust. The main change from our first draft is that it seems unlikely that even if a doctor were unavailable to discuss results that the job wouldn't be delegated to a nurse. We rewrote the scene to bring in a second - but still unfamiliar - doctor. These are the protocols we must get right if we have any chance of convincing the delegates to engage with the play.

There have been some concerns that we paint a negative picture of the health care professions through the initial play, but I've had to hold my ground on this point. We're not presenting an objective documentary, but dramatising the perceptions of young people who've been diagnosed with cancer. Nothing in the play has been invented. It's a pure composite of anecdotes and letters.

It's a thin line to tread. Inevitably we have to stir the conference into action - perhaps by provoking them to examine some of these stories, but equally we have no desire to alienate dedicated professional practitioners, many of whom have dedicated their whole careers to improving cancer care for young people. The charisma and generosity with which we set up the session, encourage participation and, vitally, defer if we do provoke contention will be very important to the success of the work.

Michael, playing John, carries the bulk of the lines and he's struggling a bit to get the rewrites down. Towards the end of the day things had ground to a bit of a halt, which meant we didn't have as much time as I'd have liked to rehearse anticipated interventions. However, overall I'm very happy with it and I know Michael will put in the time between now and next Tuesday. We've agreed to meet earlier in the day to have a final refresher run.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Now That's What I Call Barbershopera!

Off to the Soho this evening to see the latest offering from our friends in Barbershopera! They're about to go into rehearsal for The Three Musketeers, which they'll open in Edinburgh in August, but for fun, and to hone the ensemble complicity that their work requires, they're spending the evenings performing a greatest hits show, featuring many of the wonderful tunes that they've put together over the past five years.

The format really suits their work. Each member of the team is given a chance to introduce a couple of numbers making for a more intimate way to get to know the company. It also gives an outing to many of the songs that haven't found their way into the shows, but have picked up a cult YouTube following. Including the wonderful I Could Have Married Kate and  the oh so true Edinburgh (Not Gonna Go). Barbershopera's shows are always dynamic and breathtakingly fast paced so it's great to see the company chatting in a relaxed setting freed from the inevitable mania of keeping one step ahead of their lyrics. I guess it's a welcome relief for them as well. A chance to measure how far they've come, take stock and think about what they're going to do next

In the middle of the show a special guest - this evening comedienne Lucy Porter - supports the show with a try out of their new material. It's a good gear change, helps give another texture to the evening and leaves those of us who aren't going to make it to the festival a further feeling that a little bit of the fringe had come to us.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

John's Story.

Started rehearsals with Drama St Mary's graduates Michael, Katie and Joe for the Teenage Cancer Trust conference next Tuesday. We've simply decided to call the piece John's Story. Using the testimonies that the TCT have given us and some further research I've drafted up five key scenes detailing specific moments of anxiety or reflection for our protagonist John. I've interspersed these with some verbatim monologues.

The play covers a period of  the last six years from John's first admission onto a paediatric ward in 2006, at 16, through to the monologues which are set in the present day.

The first scene is set three years after the initial diagnosis in 2009. John has been in remission for six months, but new tests reveal that his leukaemia has, once again, returned. Unfortunately his regular Doctor is away at a conference and so the news is given to him by a hassled, inexpereinced nurse. To complicate matters John's also turned eighteen which means a move from paediatrics to the Adult Haematology Unit, where a new team will be taking over his care.

The second scene is set on the adult ward where John's Mum is told that, unlike in paediatrics, visiting hours are regulated. John is the youngest patient by some considerable way and information is often given to him before his Mum arrives. The abrupt nature of this transition triggers a depression. John begins to fall further and further behind with his school work.

The third scene takes the audience back to 2008, when, after two years of treatment, John first went into remission, and was offered a trip for two by the TCT to New York. His girlfriend, who'd stopped visiting him in hospital, comes round to celebrate, searching out an invite. John doesn't feel he deserves the tickets and doesn't feel like going away with fellow 'survivors.'

The fourth scene is more intimate, set in the early days of John's diagnosis. It's really a late night, lights out conversation on coping between John and Danny, his friend in a neighbouring bed on the ward. John reveals that he's convinced himself that if 1 in 3 people get cancer over the course of their lifetime then his diagnosis is, in some karmic way, 'drawing the poison from two people he loves'. Danny disagrees and describes the random nature of the inflication 'God's sick joke.'

The final scene jumps forward to 2010. John has been clear for two months and his parents want to organise a party to celebrate. When John disagrees she bursts in to tears and tells him they all need an event to draw a line under the cancer. Finally he agrees, only to discover that the party clashes with Danny's funeral. John doesn't want to tell his Mum. In the end the party happens without him. It's a bleak ending to what essential should be a story about coming through. For the purposes of the forum though I think it's judged pretty well.

We worked quickly spending the morning the morning actioning each line and the afternoon establishing the blocking. On the whole the piece feels sturdy. Sue at TCT is going to look at the script overnight and feedback any last minute ideas.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Vincent and TCT Meeting.

More casting today for The Robben Island Bible reading at the beginning of July. We've been looking for a somebody to play Sonny Venkatrathnam, the owner of book and the principal narrator in the edited version of the play we're using for the event. Today we finally found our man in Vincent Ebrahim, whose recent credits include The Great Game at the Tricycle. He's also been a stalwart for Tara Arts and is best known for playing the Dad in The Kumars at Number 42.

Vincent grew up in South Africa and seemed fascinated by the story. After training in Cape Town, he emigrated to Britain in 1976, just about the time of when the Black Consciousness Movement was reaching its zenith, culminating in the Soweto riots. The arrival on Robben Island of this second generation of political protest, and their lack of respect for the 'passive' resistance of Mandela and his fellow Rivonia Trialists is one of the key themes of our revised text. Many of Vincent's friends took part in anti-apartheid activities and happenings and it's clear just from our brief meeting this afternoon that Vincent, as well as being a fine Sonny, is going to provide a valuable font of knowledge about the development of protest and the complicated relationship between the many political parties and groups that made up the struggle. I'm really pleased he's agreed to do it.

Next stop was the Teenage Cancer Trust for a brief chat about the forum play I'm writing for their conference the week after next. There are two key concepts that I'm still trying to find a voice for in the fragments of script that I've put together. The first is transition - the idea that at key stages during the journey from diagnosis to hopeful remission there are drastic changes to the routine of care, which can cause unnecessary anxiety and concern and secondly the notion of 'survivorship', and the guilt which often accompanies it.

Sue Morgan who chairs the Teenage Cancer Trust Multidisciplinary Forum and has commissioned the work listened carefully to our ideas, told some stories and made a few suggestions. I'm going to try and knock a composite script out over the weekend and resubmit it to the group for comments and to ensure authenticity. My big fear is of getting things factually wrong. A mistake in portraying procedure or protocol could derail the audience and mean that they end up critiquing the play, rather than participating in the search for resolution. I suppose one of the truisms of working in the Applied Theatre field is that you're continually visit fields of knowledge and expertise that are alien to your own training and experience. I'm enjoying the challenge of getting it right.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Talk to the Hand.

Earlier this week the BBC showed a beautiful documentary Her Master's Voice, featuring ventriloquist Nina Conti, which amongst many things explored her relationship with her mentor, the anarchic theatre maker Ken Campbell and the oddly schizophrenic world of talking to a puppet. What made the programme so moving, was that Nina had been planning to tell Ken, who introduced her to the ventriloquism, that she planned to give it up, when he died unexpectedly in 2008. This, then was a cathartic elegy both to a man and an art form - all told in an extended dialogue between Nina and her savagely honest dummy, Monk.

This evening she was reviving last year's Edinburgh show at the Udderbelly on the South Bank, so we went along to have a look. Monk, as usual, stole the show, providing the unspoken subtext behind Nina's vulnerable demeanour. He insulted the audience, character assassinated his operator and generally cut through the worlds of illusion and bullshit with characteristic bluntness.

There were other characters, a salacious owl, the rehabilitated granny, who we thought had been retired to the ventriloquist's museum in Vent Haven and an American diva who tries to swap voices with Nina, before the evening ends with a hilarious sequence in which members of the audience fitted with face masks forced to show us their dance moves.

In 2008 Nina was ready to pack it in, unsure whether talking to the hand constituted a proper use of a life. Now, as she continues to hone her act and make programmes that muse philosophically on the theraputic value of imaginary friends, it feels as though she's treading some fascinating new ground.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The Last of the Haussmans.

To the National Theatre to see the much anticipated first play by actor Stephen Beresford The Last of the Haussmans.

In essence it's smart, rather than groundbreaking work. Beresford, like Chekhov in The Cherry Orchard, which it's impossible not to be reminded off, looks at the legacy of indulgence, but instead of turn of the century Russia, here we're transported to a crumbling seaside home, where flower power child of the sixties, Julia Haussman, played perhaps slightly too self-knowingly by Julie Walters, holds court with her two children Libby, dealing with a recent break up, Nick, her talented but demon riddled son and her granddaughter Summer. Literally and metaphorically the house is falling down and the children, brought up to sentimentally follow their own destines, are ill-equipped to stop the rot.

Helen McCory and Rory Kinnear have great fun as Libby and Nick, playing up to Walters tottering matriarch, and revelling in the finely tuned lines gifted to them - at one point Nick stuns his mother by telling her that the revolutionaries of his youth were Reagan and Thatcher, rather than the women of Greenham Common, who, he claims are now left doing nothing more important than managing donkey sanctuaries.

For a while now the search has been on for a meaningful 'right wing' play to challenge the liberal intelligentsia's version of recent history and contemporary society. The problem is that although Beresford sets up an interesting argument, the rambling nature of the work and his acerbic pen, leaves us, at best, ambivalent to the fate of the characters. In The Cherry Orchard, the offstage sound of the trees being chopped down, provides a metronomic urgency, that makes the play simultaneously vital and heartbreaking. Here, however, rather than feeling the Haussmans are a central metaphor for a dysfunctional society we're left struggling to see them as little more than the naive relics of impossible dream.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012


Long journeys up and down the West Coast to attend my final exam board at Cumbria University have given me a chance to begin my Summer reading.

Later in July Eleanor and I are going to spend some time in New England and so in preparation I've spent the last couple of days reading Philip Hoare's excellent Leviathan, which is a brilliant cultural history of whales and whaling. The book offers some amazing accounts of battles between the first whaling ships which left New Bedford and Nantucket and these wonderful creatures, who Hoare suggests may have an intelligence so sophisticated that abstract and imaginative thoughts such as religion and future could well be within their ken.

It's an incredible history dating right back into the sixteenth century. Queen Elizabeth I was convinced on the existence of unicorns when she was presented with a Narwhal's tusk.

Despite the massacres on the whale populations that occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which have decimated many species, there are still great beasts out there who have lived for over 200 years. Which means it's quite possible that some of the great whales who provided the inspiration for Herman Melville's Moby Dick are still with us.

The sand dunes of Cape Cod and weatherboard chapels where the whalers prayed for safe passage seem miles away on a rainy afternoon in Carlisle - but with the exam boards out the way - summer is creeping up on us.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Canaletto's Community Ceremonial.

The Jubliee weekend is up and running with the Thames Pageant. An event designed to show the river off as liquid history. A Canaletto inspired homage to the industry and majesty of our City. The Royal umbilical cord linking England to London and London to an Empire where the sun never sets. Unfortunately it rained.

We went out early and caught the train up to Putney to see the 1,000 boats muster. There was a sense of expectation, but little action, so we walked up through Wandsworth to Battersea Park. All along the route were the eccentric English, not sure why they'd camped out all night, picnicing in the drizzle. Occasionally a dazed group of tourists, eyebrows furrowed, uncomfortably clutching soggy Union Jacks, unsure whether they were welcome or indeed really wanted to join in this very particular ascertion of national identity.

At the park the walk was abruptly stopped by strong armed security guards. We could see the barge across the river at Chelsea but, the rain beginning to harden, we decided, on balance little would be lost if we watched the rest on TV so we came home.

It was the most British of afternoons. The BBC sychopantically interviewing anybody who could be relied on not to shout 'off with their heads' or 'what a waste of money.' The rain getting heavier and heavier. Exhausted rowers, battling tide, elements and Clare Balding using their last ounce of strength to mouth how delighted they were to be taking part. A crusty old Thesp, drowned out by the wind, reading Wordsworth on Westminster Bridge.

Throughout it all the Royal Family feigned interest, in the way that only they can, but by the time they moored at Tower Bridge, most of the crowds had gone home, figuring that seeking shelther and a cup of tea is no less patriotic than standing alongside an aged monarch in the jaws of a tempest.

It took an age for the boats to sail past until finally a sodden choir from the Royal College of Music appeared to sing a Valkeryiesque rendition of Land of Hope and Glory.

Stirring and futile, profound and ridiculous. It seemed to perfectly capture the very British ability to be ironic and truthful in the same breath.