Review: Lunatic 19’s at Finborough Theatre

With immigrants across the USA bracing for planned Ice raids this weekend, Lunatic 19’s, a topical new play by Iowa-based writer Tegan McLeod, shines a spotlight on the soullessness and absurdity of American immigration laws and procedures. A tense two-hander, it’s the kind of story you want to dismiss out of hand as an exaggerated, politicised version of the truth – but only because accepting that this sort of thing can and does really happen is an idea too horrific to contemplate.

Photo credit: Marian Medic

Gracie Reyes (Gabriela García) is an undocumented migrant worker, who’s originally from Mexico but has called Kentucky home since she was a child. After narrowly surviving a horrific car accident, she’s taken from her hospital bed, neck brace and all, handcuffed and bundled into a windowless van for the long drive back “from whence she came”. Her driver and captor is Alec (Devon Anderson), whose career depends on getting Gracie back to Mexico promptly – but as the days pass, it becomes more and more difficult for him to view her as just another number. And so what we end up with is a dark take on the traditional road trip buddy movie, in which it seems increasingly unlikely that there can ever be a happy ending for either of them.

Framed as a nightmarish, almost dystopian, memory playing out on a minimalist set (Carla Goodman), the play is outstandingly performed – both as individuals and as a partnership – by Gabriela García and Devon Anderson. García is enthralling to watch as Gracie, a survivor who’s lived through more trauma than most of us can even imagine. Though she approaches most conversations with either stoic resignation or bitter sarcasm (which only warms the audience to her even further), underneath it all she’s clearly terrified and confused by the indignity of her situation and the prospect of being dumped without warning back in a country she barely remembers.

Similarly complex is Devon Anderson’s Alec Herrero, who may not be facing deportation but is, in some ways, just as desperate. Also of Latino heritage, he sees all too clearly in the “cargo” he transports how his own life could have been very different – but with a wife, three daughters and a troubled sister to support, he needs this job. Little by little Anderson’s facade of emotionless authority slips to reveal a decent, caring human being who’s trapped by his own circumstances into becoming part of a system he knows is wrong. And although his developing relationship with Gracie has a certain inevitability to it – this is a road trip story after all – their chemistry never feels forced.

Photo credit: Marian Medic

A particularly effective aspect of Jonathan Martin’s production is the sparing but frequent use of blood as both a physical prop and a metaphor. Gracie’s body – and her blood in particular – has betrayed her many times; she’s a haemophiliac with a history of multiple miscarriages, who had the misfortune to be born in the wrong country. So while many parts of her story are portrayed figuratively rather than literally (there’s no van, no pharmacy, no detention centre, not even an actual road), it feels appropriate that the blood at the heart of the story is all too real.

Despite some very funny lines of dialogue, there’s nothing particularly humorous about Lunatic 19’s – especially when you only have to turn on the news to understand that stories like this one are not just true, but also completely legal. The utter absurdity and inhumanity of a system that values the worth of a human being purely by where they were born makes for difficult viewing, but the story is so well told that the time we spend with Gracie and Alec – though frequently harrowing – feels considerably shorter than its run time of 90 minutes. An excellent production, and essential viewing.

Lunatic 19’s is at the Finborough Theatre until 3rd August.

Review: Bury the Dead at Finborough Theatre

A few days ago, leaders from across the world stood shoulder to shoulder to commemorate the end of World War I, and the millions of lives sacrificed during the conflict. With one obvious exception (who shall remain nameless because frankly, who can be bothered with him?), they were respectful and sombre – so it’s been pretty depressing this week to see several of them once again at each other’s throats. It’s almost enough to make you wonder what the war (any war) was even for…?

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

In Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead, written in 1935, six fallen American soldiers stand up in their graves and courteously ask not to be buried. Their violent and bloody deaths, they argue, were not of their choosing; they gave their lives for someone else’s cause, and it doesn’t seem fair that their reward should be to be buried and quietly forgotten, when each still has so much to live for.

The soldiers’ peaceful protest makes a powerful statement, but what gives Bury the Dead such an impact is the response to their actions. The military leaders, fearful of the effect it will have on morale, desperately try to keep the whole situation quiet – and when that fails, they distort the soldiers’ message into propaganda to further their cause. After the soldiers fail to obey direct orders to lie down and be buried, their superiors use fear and manipulation to get their “women” to talk them round. This may be a story about the walking dead, but there’s little doubt at any point who the real monsters are.

The beginning and end of the play are fast-paced, with set designer Verity Johnson’s bleakly atmospheric grave site often full to bursting as the establishment frantically try to find a solution to their growing problem. Director Rafaella Marcus smoothly choreographs the multiple entrances and exits, and makes efficient use of her cast; most of the eleven actors take on a number of roles. Even the six dead men are at first played by just three (Keeran Blessie, Tom Larkin and Stuart Nunn), because the others (Luke Dale, Liam Harkins and Scott Westwood) double as the soldiers who would have buried them. I don’t know if that’s how Shaw wrote the play, or if it’s a decision that was taken for this production – but either way, when the two groups come together it’s an incredibly powerful moment.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

The majority of the second half of the play slows things down (arguably a bit too much), taking the form of six one-on-one encounters between the soldiers and their “women”, and giving each of the actors an opportunity to shine individually as they explain their own motivations. This is also a showcase for the versatility of Sioned Jones and Natalie Winsor, who alternate between them as the six women – though it’s great to also see the only two female cast members in the role of doctors and journalists, and not just as weeping wives and mothers.

The Remembrance Day ceremonies may be over for another year, but in Bury the Dead we’re reminded that lives lost in combat are lost forever, not just for a day. The play draws a careful distinction between heroism and honour; having the courage to risk dying alone, in pain and far from home is heroic, but there’s nothing honourable about it, particularly when the only people who gain from it are those unwilling to risk it themselves. Bury the Dead asks us to remember – but to avoid repeating the horrors of the past, it suggests what we really need to do is to listen.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at Finborough Theatre

Cancer is no laughing matter… or is it? In the European premiere of Halley Feiffer’s play, which for the sake of brevity let’s call A Funny Thing Happened, we’re respectfully invited to see the humorous side of an incredibly serious situation.

Karla’s mum has cancer. So does Don’s. She’s a stand-up comedian with abandonment issues. He’s a divorced millionaire with a “sea foam green” apartment he can’t bring himself to live in. The first time they meet, she’s working aloud on a comedy routine about her vibrator, and he – not entirely without justification – is appalled. They have nothing at all in common besides the two women sleeping quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) in the beds beside them, but that single shared experience is enough to spark a surprising connection.

Photo credit: James O Jenkins

The vibrator jokes, as it turns out, are just the tip of the iceberg – but despite the ever-present gallows humour, there’s something very uplifting about this story of two unlikely companions working their way together through a devastating situation. It’s an unconventional, sometimes undignified and often wildly inappropriate journey – but does that mean they’re doing it wrong?

As Karla and Don, Cariad Lloyd and Rob Crouch have great on-stage chemistry, showing us multiple sides of each character as the dynamic of their relationship shifts. Just as in real life, there are moments when they each know exactly what to say or do to make the other feel better – but equally there are occasions where Feiffer acknowledges that there simply aren’t adequate words to make sense of what they’re going through.

On paper, Kristin Milward and Cara Chase have a lot less to do as the mums, Marcie and Geena, who spend most of their time sleeping – but their presence (and occasional contributions) become a vital backdrop to both the story and the characters within it. When Marcie wakes up, about halfway through the play, it’s quite a curveball; very quickly we have a much clearer understanding of why Karla is the way she is, but we also have to face up to the inconvenient truth that nobody wants to say aloud – not all cancer patients are nice people.

Photo credit: James O Jenkins

Isabella van Braeckel’s set recreates the hospital environment down to the last detail; I could swear I caught a whiff of disinfectant in the air on the way in. The long curtain that spans the stage, shielding the patients from view, cleverly doubles up to do the same for the actors during a couple of fairly lengthy scene changes.

Terminal cancer is of course, in itself, not at all funny – and even less so in the States, where the cost of healthcare in a time of crisis only makes an unbearable situation even worse. A Funny Thing Happened respects that, and knows when to stop joking around and take itself seriously; the final scenes, in particular, are sensitively written and poignantly portrayed. In fact, the subject is so well handled that audiences are more likely to be offended by the foul-mouthed content of the jokes than the fact that jokes are being made in the first place. Cancer might be a formidable opponent, and it may well get the better of us eventually – but, as this play proves, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a big old laugh in its face first.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Checkpoint Chana at Finborough Theatre

It sometimes feels like barely a day goes by without someone in the public eye saying or doing something ill-advised, only to back down under the inevitable public outcry and issue a hastily written apology. This is the situation in which we find Bev Hemmings (Geraldine Somerville), the central character in Jeff Page’s Checkpoint Chana. Her latest collection of poems has just been published, with one particular piece attracting widespread attention and criticism for a line that many view as anti-Semitic. Even Bev’s loyal PA Tamsin (Ulrika Krishnamurti) isn’t quite sure how she feels about it, but she throws herself nonetheless into damage control – a task made more tricky by the fact her boss doesn’t think she’s done anything wrong.

Photo credit: Samuel Kirkman

And the truth is that for all her many faults, Bev seems far more guilty of poor judgment and extreme naivety than of any actual prejudice. She doesn’t want to apologise because she didn’t mean any harm – and looked at from an entirely rational perspective, she might have a point. Except when it comes to anti-Semitism, taking emotion out of the equation is a very difficult thing to do, and it’s her failure to appreciate the strength of feeling on both sides that’s brought Bev to this point. This, along with a dying father, a serious drink problem (as the play opens, she swigs wine surreptitiously from a hot water bottle – an odd addition from director Manuel Bau, given that Bev’s love of booze is soon revealed to be an extremely open secret) and a career that’s hanging by a thread, provides us with plenty of reasons to pity rather than condemn her, should we choose to do so.

Despite appearances, Checkpoint Chana isn’t a particularly political play, and anyone hoping to engage in sturdy debate about the Middle East is likely to come away feeling unsatisfied. Page steers clear of discussing the historical background to the furore, choosing instead to focus on Bev’s personal turmoil. Geraldine Somerville perfectly captures the complexity of her character, making her pathetic enough that we find it hard to hate her, but stopping far short of being someone we can admire. There are references to a successful past career but those days are long gone, and Bev now seems almost to revel in her self-destructive choices.

Photo credit: Samuel Kirkman

The other characters have less depth to them, but the actors – Ulrika Krishnamurti, Matt Mella and Nathaniel Wade – do well with the material they have, under the close scrutiny of an audience who are seated in the round mere inches away. Tamsin’s relationship with her boss is interesting to watch, the two more like patient/carer than employer/employee but with a bit of witty banter thrown in, while sympathetic Jewish journalist David and arts centre employee Michael each offer Bev a shot at redemption, if she’s willing to take it.

As a discussion of the ins and outs of the Middle East conflict, Checkpoint Chana doesn’t have a great deal to say (although to be fair you’d need a bit more than 70 minutes to get into that subject properly). But if political controversy is relegated to the side dish, the main course – a thoughtful and well-acted study of a woman on the brink – is still more than enough to satisfy.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Paul Bradley, Caste

Best known to many for his long-running roles in Eastenders and Holby City, next month Paul Bradley will be taking to the stage at the Finborough Theatre in a long-awaited revival of T.W. Robertson’s Caste. This new production from Project One marks the 150th anniversary of the ground-breaking comedy, which hasn’t been performed in the UK for over 20 years.

So what’s it all about? “Well of course the clue’s in the title,” says Paul. “It’s a play about social divisions in Victorian London. Eccles, a drunken father with no money, has two daughters: Esther, who’s being courted by George, an aristocrat and miles above her in social station; and Polly, who’s being courted by Sam, a man of her own social class. George’s mother is a snobbish Marquise who disapproves completely of the match and is appalled by the Eccles family. George and Esther marry but he’s called to fight in India. He disappears and Esther’s father drinks and gambles away all the money that had been left for her and she’s now, as well as having given birth to a son, impoverished again. I won’t spoil the denouement but it’s a comedy so all ends well!”

Photo credit: Greg Veit Photography

Paul joins the cast – which also features another TV favourite, Susan Penhaligon – as Esther’s father Eccles, and he’s enjoying exploring his character’s hidden depths: “Eccles is a drunken father – so a bit of a stretch for me there! He’s a complicated man. On the surface he seems just a drunken beggar, but he’s intelligent and sees himself as being as good as anyone in a higher station. He is also cruel and has an addict’s selfishness. He claims to be a champion of the working man but hasn’t worked a stroke in twenty years. Although he doesn’t live by them, the sentiments he spouts are commendable; he’s a victim of both his circumstances and his own ‘life choices’.”

Caste was described by George Bernard Shaw as “epoch making” – but what made Robertson’s play so revolutionary for its time? “It’s the first ‘cup and saucer’ play – the equivalent of the 60’s ‘kitchen sink’ dramas,” explains Paul. “And it’s as radical as they also were. The people and situations are realistic – a mirror to nature of Two Nation Britain. It’s also that rare thing; a funny play which looks at English social mores.”

And Paul believes the play is just as forward-thinking today as it was 150 years ago. “Absolutely. It’s so modern, so – depressingly – relevant. A real political play. It expresses, in a comical way, real, deep concerns about class, aristocracy, poverty and social mobility.

“It’s very funny and moving and a sort of social document. I think it will amuse, move but also leave an audience thinking. It spotlights the challenge of social mobility. Without satire it introduces real characters whose social gulf seems insuperable but who, in finding love, see that gulf as irrelevant.”

Photo credit: Greg Veit Photography

Caste‘s production team is headed up by director Charlotte Peters, currently Resident Director on An Inspector Calls in the West End. “I’m rather daunted by how brilliant the cast and director and designer are,” says Paul. “They’re a brilliant team who are all committed to making this show a landmark production.”

It’s been more than two decades since Caste was seen in the UK, and Paul’s delighted to be bringing the play to a new audience. “When I first read the play I loved it and felt I had to be part of it. I can’t believe that this hugely influential work hasn’t been performed for so long. It’s the sort of groundbreaking play that the National or RSC should be championing.

“Because it is such a gem I feel a responsibility to live up to the author’s vision, and I think this is a view shared by us all. With a play of such quality it is a gift to be a part of the production. I hope that we start a re-appreciation of Robertson’s work and find a new audience for him.”

Caste is at the Finborough Theatre on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays from 2nd-18th April.