Review: East at King’s Head Theatre

East begins with a cacophonous rendition of East End classic, My Old Man Said Follow The Van, with each of the five actors singing at different speeds and in different keys. It’s an unconventional opening to a play that we quickly realise doesn’t believe in compromise; much like its characters, and the famously distinctive area of London in which it’s set, Steven Berkoff’s 1975 play – which returns for the first time to its original London home at the King’s Head, directed by Jessica Lazar – has its own unique personality and makes no apology for the brutal, foul-mouthed honesty with which it depicts East End life.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

The story – such as it is – centres predominantly around two friends, Les (Jack Condon) and Mike (James Craze), whose first encounter sees them beat each other to a bloody pulp after Les looks the wrong way at Mike’s girlfriend Sylv (Boadicea Ricketts). We then meet Mike’s parents (Debra Penny and Russell Barnett), a faded, loveless couple whose only pleasure seems to come from watching TV, reminiscing on times past and – in Dad’s case – lecturing the family on his right-wing views.

From there, the play abandons any pretence at a linear narrative, instead painting a series of pictures of the characters’ lives through a mix of heartfelt soliloquies, physical set pieces and comedic silent movie sequences – all performed by an outstanding cast to a live piano soundtrack played by musical director Carol Arnopp. The action jumps backwards and forwards in time, spanning several years, and keeps us constantly off balance as we try to keep up with the relentless pace of it all.

Berkoff’s language is a fascinating blend of Shakespearean and contemporary, laced with rhyming slang, references to East London locations, and enough expletives to turn the air well and truly blue. His characters are all frequently reprehensible, but also display a deep dissatisfaction with their lives that goes some way to winning our sympathy. Boadicea Ricketts’ Sylv leads the way in the hope for change, reflecting wistfully on a woman’s role in a male-dominated world, in a speech that could (to society’s discredit) have been written yesterday instead of 30 years ago. Jack Condon cuts a pathetic figure as Les – constantly left out, making jokes that don’t quite hit the mark, and ultimately betrayed by his own loneliness – with Debra Penny’s Mum similarly unfulfilled as she observes her sleeping husband and remembers with apparent satisfaction an incident at the local cinema that should have left her horrified.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

East is a difficult play to pin down – at times funny, at others shocking, it has an underlying current of frustration that explodes in a variety of ways, from sex to violence to dodgy dancing (and, on one occasion, flying baked beans). The cast excel in physically and emotionally demanding roles, and the production maintains a constant drive and energy from the first moment to the last – all the more impressive given the lack of flow in the narrative. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea; if you’re easily offended then you may want to steer clear. But for anyone who’s excited by bold, striking theatre that’s not afraid to go its own way, this is a must-see.

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Interview: Karen Mann and Roy Mitchell, Care

Roy Mitchell, co-creator of BBC’s New Tricks, wrote Care when he was a student at Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre in 1977. Last performed at the Royal Court in 1983, this “powerful and provocative” work is about to be revived with an ethnically diverse cast by The Angus Mackay Foundation, and will run from 9th-14th May at the Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton.

“In essence it’s about a young couple in 1970s Birmingham who end up putting their baby in a cupboard,” summarises Roy. “Why they do so takes about two hours of stage time to explain.”

Karen Mann, who plays central character Cheryl, adds, “They’re a young couple who love each other, but have found themselves in an awful circumstance trying to navigate a secret that could alter their life.

“The sense of disenfranchisement and isolation is really relatable. These are good people who are trying so hard but they have never been given amazing opportunities; how can anyone survive and grow without support?”

Karen jumped at the chance to be involved in reviving Care for a new generation. “The producer introduced me to the play and I just knew I had to be a part of it, although I knew it would be very dark,” she explains. “He told me it looked at a relationship that was so raw and real, but the play was so physical, and as someone with physical theatre training but who loves straight plays with strong narratives, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. And when I got my hands on that script I thought to myself I will give anything to play Cheryl; her journey is astounding.

“When I opened the script I saw two humans who are very much in love and trying to make the most of the situation handed to them. I never perceived them as bad people – I thought WOW I can understand how that happened and why they have created this bubble to exist in. The play although dark is so funny and so full of love, and that to me is really interesting because I think all of us can relate to this play in some type of way.”

For Roy, seeing Care performed again after all these years is a surreal experience, and has come with a few surprises. “I’m not the young man who wrote it any more – and yet of course, I am,” he says. “It’s been surprising to see how well the cast and director are able to understand and recognise the characters’ behaviour.

“It’s also great fun hearing the Birmingham accent and language of my youth – it has become very diluted. What is new is the multi-racial casting element; it actually makes much more sense of a couple of things that have occurred in the back story, and perhaps one or two in the play itself. What it has to say about spiritual poverty and materialism I think seems a lot more prescient than I once thought. 

“The idea was inspired by my upbringing; I was very happy but a lot of the world around me wasn’t. Children were invariably seen and not heard – though not in my case! And in particular, the play was inspired by Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata.”

Karen, her fellow cast members – Marc Benga, Jaana Tamra and Leo Shirely – and director Emily Marshall have been working closely with Roy on the play’s revival. “Roy has been so generous with his time and I’ve learnt so much about the world of this play because of him,” says Karen. “He’s allowing all of us actors to own our characters, but he is so intuitive when we don’t understand certain quirks and is so sensitive when explaining it to us. Roy is an actors’ writer and having him be a part of rehearsals has been the most enjoyable experience – especially considering all the experience he has!”

As for what audiences take away from seeing the play? “That’s up to them,” concludes Roy. “Despite the content and subject of the play, it will make them laugh in places – otherwise we’re buggered.”

Care is at the Courtyard Theatre from 9th-14th May. Tickets are just £9 with code Monkey16.

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.

Review: I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road at Jermyn Street Theatre

The announcement that I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road – which for ease of typing, let’s shorten to Getting My Act Together – was to be revived caused a fair bit of excitement in London musical theatre circles. Written by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford, the show gained something of a cult following during its three-year run off-Broadway from 1978, and now a new generation gets to see why, thanks to Matthew Gould’s irresistible production at the intimate Jermyn Street Theatre.

The wordy title, it turns out, is actually a concise summary of the plot. Pop star Heather Jones is marking her 39th birthday with the opening night of a new act, but much to her manager Joe’s horror, her music’s taken a new direction while he’s been away. Leaving behind the banal pop songs that launched her career (and got her to 89 in the charts), Heather’s decided to stop hiding and reveal herself to her audience as the strong, independent woman she really is.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Unfortunately Joe, a well-meaning misogynist, doesn’t know how to sell – or indeed, even talk to – a strong, independent woman like Heather. The ensuing battle of wits is a very personal and angry one, and it soon becomes clear it’s not the new act Heather needs her friend to accept, but the new her (or rather, the her she’s always been but is only now able to show). Along the way, the show opens up a discussion about relationships and gender equality – and though Edward Iliffe’s cosy nightclub set and colourful costumes leave us in no doubt we’re in the 1970s, it’s a discussion that’s nonetheless just as (if not more) relevant today.

Though Getting My Act Together can at times lean a little towards the heavy side, particularly in the dialogue, this is balanced out by some fabulous musical numbers, which range from the uplifting anthem Natural High to the heart-breaking ballad Lonely Lady, and flawless performances from every member of the talented cast. Landi Oshinowo is a joy to watch as Heather; not only are her vocals stunning, but she brings a twinkle and charm to the part that soften the anger in her words. This is not just a bitter divorcee having a rant about men, but a woman who’s proud to have finally discovered who she is and longs to share that knowledge with her old friend (incidentally, Old Friend is another of the musical numbers, and it’s beautiful). The fact that Heather also has a feisty streak only makes her more attractive and enjoyable to watch.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Oshinowo receives excellent support – both emotionally and vocally – from Rosanna Hyland and Kristen Gaetz, as her back-up singers and friends Alice and Cheryl. Along with the other members of the band (Alice Offley, David Gibbons, Rich Craig and musical director Nick Barstow), the two singers radiate an infectious joy and enthusiasm for the music, its message and Heather herself. Meanwhile, Nicolas Colicos cuts a lonely figure as Joe, the only character on stage not fully in support of Heather’s new direction. It would be really easy to see him as the enemy, but Colicos’ performance is warm, funny and at times vulnerable enough that it’s hard to dislike him, even at his most outrageously sexist.

Though the subject matter of Getting My Act Together may not be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s no doubt this is a great production; an energetic cast, pitch perfect performances and the irresistible score are more than enough reason to overlook a few outdated and uninspired passages of dialogue. It seems this is another revival that was well worth waiting for.

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