All posts by Kelly McElroy

Kelly is a theatre writer and reviewer.

‘Art’ Old Vic Theatre

There is nothing more satisfying in theatre than a well-played pause, especially when it is painted in shades of grey and framed by calamitous comedy. In the Old Vic’s production of ‘Art’ by Yasmina Reza and in translation by Christoper Hampton, this pause is caused by the controversial purchase of an entirely white – or is it? – painting by Serge (Rufus Sewell). The production is a series of erupting conversations between Serge and his two friends; Marc (Paul Ritter) and Yvan (Tim Key) who are less than thrilled by their friend’s impulse buy. What begins as a casual discussion over the nuances of “modern” art turns into a riotus row over the triptych’s friendship.

Yasmina Reza explores the complex truths hiding beneath the veneer of human friendship. Within the sparking monologues, duologues and final explosive dialogue between the three men, Reza traverses the changing tide of favour and the twitching betrayals through droll, unflinching humour. Her writing is brave and exploratory.

Warchus’s direction brutally propels the three men around the stage in constant, significant relation to each other. The white painting is invoked constantly throughout Mark Thompson’s design; a spartan “modernist” apartment, all white, with white square furniture reminding us of the infamous painting even when it is not onstage. The painting indeed feels like a character in itself and a times, rather ironically appears truly artistic as fractured silhouettes of the men are cast across it in Hugh Vanstone’s beautiful lighting plot. Notably, during these moments, all three are too absorbed in their own conversations to notice this. Often, the characters break from the scene and offer direct asides to the audience, the lights dimming and spotlighting them in a moody sunbeam from the stage right window. art-old-vic-73

Sewell shines as the berated buyer and strides the stage with the required swagger for Serge to function as Reza’s central protagonist. His performance boasts exquisite physicalisations and verbal dynamism. He presents Serge’s unconscious quest for Marc’s praise with delicate, masterful strokes. Meanwhile, Paul Ritter’s Marc maintains a disapproving determination in response to Serge’s praise of “modernism”. His herbal pill-popping is humorously handled. Between the two, their considering pauses speak loudest. Yvan brings a childlike and flustered incompetence to the group through Tim Key’s endearing performance. At one point, Key enters in hysterics and suffers a remarkable outburst, monologuing at a relentless pace for over three eye-watering minutes. I wept with a mixture of hilarity, disbelief and admiration. However, this outburst is the peak of Key’s performance. Yvan’s one-dimensionality does betray Key’s stand-up background.

The production is packed full of -high-quality comedy but also with sudden, surprising  moments of honesty. Warchus’s interpretation of male friendship gives us glimpses of the men in all their reluctant vulnerability to each other, as well as to their own expectations. It is an unflinching look at what lies behind the small untruths we tell in the name of friendship and how they can grow. It notes that friendship is not black and white, as there is no such thing as white; only shades of grey.

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‘BU21’ at Trafalgar Studios

Stuart Slade’s first play ‘BU21’ gives a timely answer to the question that Londoners now ask themselves every day: “What would happen in another terrorist attack?” The plays transfers from the renowned Theatre503 to Studio2 in Trafalgar Studios and is produced by Slade’s own Kuleshov company. It is a sparking, honest and irreverent piece of verbatim theatre.

Slade’s play centres on the shared experiences of six people after a passenger plane is shot down over London, crashing in Fulham. It takes place at a support group, each person stepping out to deliver monologues and very occasionally speaking with each other – mostly to huge comic effect. While it is not exactly an original concept, the play gets its heart from the human stories coupled with fiercely affecting performances. Each character, named after the actor, shares their own experiences of the atrocity, as well as their life following. Several are highly dismissive of the others. All of them are deeply affected by the tragedy.

What has the potential to be a flat recounting of tragedy flourishes into a quirky and engaging dialogue of human experience. Izzy, played by the only new cast member Isabella Laughland, discovers that her mother has died in the attack. Laughland gives an intense performance and leads us confidently through the production from her opening monologue delivered amongst the audience. Her familiar twenty-first century humanity engages us from the first sentence.

Ana has been put in a wheelchair and struggles to deal with her new way of life. Roxana Lupu is the only weak link in an otherwise strong cast, showing little to no emotional journey for Ana throughout. Her story-telling is detached and emotionally bereft.  Also, in the current equal-opportunity climate, it feels like a missed opportunity here to cast an able-bodied actor in a wheel-chair based role.

Florence Roberts gives an honest and relatable portrayal of Floss; a typical, English twenty-something as she tries to deal with the death of a man taking place in her back garden.

Clive Keene competently appears as the predictable Muslim not-a-terrorist, however this expectation is thankfully played with to great effect. At first, Clive feels like little more than a plot device for “a message” which has been sent before, however Keene manages to infuse him with just enough childish humanity to make him real. In any case, Clive is a message that needs to be sent again and again in a world in which Trump is to be President.

Alex is perhaps the most revolutionary of the set, giving Slade’s play a self-awareness that makes it even easier to connect with. Alex Forsyth offers a veritable torrent of black humour and barely smothered self-loathing. His energetic performance and cavalier breaking of the Fourth Wall even leads to juicy moments of ad-lib with audience members.

Finally, Graham O’Mara offers us the un-lovable yob caught in the middle of something too large for him not to take advantage of. His performance is solid and the character offers a nice twist to expose the frailty of our egos. The six offer a nice balance of the tragic tinged with the gross comedy that is humanity.

It does feel like ‘BU21’ struggles for space in the small Studio2 , however the close thrust space does allow the required intimacy for the piece to work. The staging is simple yet effective using only the chairs and biscuits of the support group to create several spaces and moments through the six stories, including a particularly surreal moment during one of Izzy’s speeches. Small piles of rubble are sparsely strewn around simple lighting rigs on-stage as a nod to the devastation. Lighting is also humble and the production’s occasional use of sound gives reasonable effect.

Overall ‘BU21’ is an engrossing and visceral piece of new-writing. A steady concept offers strong foundations for a topical, human story which explores our worst fears with a wry grin. ‘BU21’ will play at Trafalgar Studios until 18th February.

‘BU21’ is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 18 February

Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

66 Shaftesbury Avenue

It seems rather hard to believe, that there isn’t already a theatre themed cafe in theatre land. But it turns out, that gap in the market (that no one had particularly noticed) has just been filled.

It seems like Jill and Joe Davey (names that work so well together, you would think they’re from a musical themselves) are going for a Waterstones-for-the-Theatre meets Hard Rock cafe style with their new Theatre Cafe, opening on the West End on 12th January. The two owners, who also own the London Theatre Bookings ticket agency, are going for a comfortable, customer friendly approach. Somewhere to “sit in a comfortable environment, purchase refreshments and chat to the staff about the various shows on in London” Jill and Joe have commented. Items from shows such as Wicked and The Lion King are being leant to the establishment to be put on display.

However, unsurprisingly with the owners also owning a ticket sales company, it would appear that the cafe is also highly commercially driven. According to reports, iPads (other tablets are available) will be placed on the tables so customers can watch clips from shows and browse tickets. The head of sales at London Theatre Bookings says they’re working to “create exciting promotions using this new space”.

Sounds like a ticket queue with tables and coffee.

You will be able to find the Theatre Cafe at 66 Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

Do you plan on visiting the Theatre Cafe? Do you think you would enjoy sipping a mocha latte here?

“Decision Makers”

A recent report from a government backed initiative indicates that the arts have “zero” impact on the economy. 

What Works, a government supported project that brands itself “evidence for decision makers”, has released a report suggesting that arts and culture make no economic contribution to the country. This report follows a long-standing debate regarding the value of the arts in our society. The report shows that although the arts contribute human interest and value to society, the economic contribution made by the sector is relatively low.

Arts funding has been a battle ground with every government in the past twenty years, naysayers often being put in their place with claims that the arts offers not only cultural but also financial value to the community. What Works claim that this is inaccurate and “Given the significant cost of most major sport and culture projects they are unlikely to be cost-effective in terms of increasing local economic growth”. The benefits of tourism are also “short-lived” it reported.

This report comes in shocking opposition to that of the On with the Show: Supporting Local Arts and Culture‘s report in the summer of this year. Arts Council England found economic growth to be the number one reason for investment in the arts locally. Conversely, What Works report “We found no robust evidence on the economic impacts of smaller projects”, and project that it is likely to be even smaller than the impact made by the larger scale projects.

Is this a case of numbers trying to measure the creative immeasurable? Is this an illuminating revelation in data that should change the way we think about funding? Is this a case of 73.6% of all statistics are made up? Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Masterful Masterclass

Sixty five thousand places on free workshops and apprenticeships have been given to young performers and theatre makers by the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s Masterclass charity. Masterclass has been offering impressive opportunities in the industry for over 15 years, working towards making theatre accessible in a costly climate through workshops with industry professionals, performance opportunities and apprenticeships to people between the ages of 14 and 30.

The Royal Haymarket says it “never sleeps”. During the day, the theatre opens its doors, for free, to young performers to give the best advice, support and guidance that London has to offer in a theatre land of rising costs. This brilliant initiative is run by Masterclass, a small charity that relies on the support of businesses, organisations and generous individuals to stay on stage. The Haymarket, of course, is the charity’s long-time partner, alongside other well-known industry organisations such as The Royal Central School of Speech & Drama and the English National Opera, while patrons include David Hare and Judi Dench. Judi Dench appeared recently in the news, quietly suggesting that young actors’ fears that working-class talent is being pushed out of the profession by costly training are well-founded. Dench was quoted by the Guardian as saying “Anyone who’s in the theatre gets letters countless times a week asking for help to get through drama school. You can do so much, but you can’t do an endless thing. It is very expensive.”Clearly, Dame Judy is endeavouring to change this in some small way through her involvement with Masterclass.

The professional involvement doesn’t end with Dame Judy however. Each of the initiative’s workshops is taken by a high-level industry professional, with names including Ewan McGregor, Elaine Paige, Idris Elba and recently, award-winning director Blanche McIntyre. These industry professionals take time out of their own schedules to help and support young actors who might not be able to afford workshops offered elsewhere. Masterclass also offers highly discounted tickets for numerous theatre performances around London. Dench told the Guardian in September “I always say to young students, ‘Go and see as much as you possibly can’, which is what we used to do. But then we paid a pittance for sitting in the gods”. With theatre tickets often costing upwards of £50, this contribution is clearly just as significant to young, training actors. Masterclass also offers training in the long-term with their Apprenticeship Scheme launched in 2007, offering paid internships to those who want to work in theatre.

“I think the workshops are popular because they give access to the West End stage and the best masters of the industry” a Anoushka Warden at Masterclass commented. “They also motivate emerging actors who maybe haven’t had a job for a while”. Masterclass believes that their initiatives build “confidence for roles in the industry”, as stage craft and directing opportunities are also offered. The Theatre Royal Haymarket’s ability, as a private theatre, to set up and continue support for Masterclass makes it “quite unique”.

Certainly, the career-enhancing programs run by Masterclass are impressive in their diversity, accessibility and professional quality. Amidst the growing discussion of theatrical careers becoming “elitist” due to extortionate training fees, Masterclass is able to confidently tread the boards of the Haymarket with the knowledge that they are delivering an unparalleled service to young theatre-makers across the Capital.

Older actors, directors and craftspeople who are outside the eligibility age bracket are also able to take part for the small fee of £10 per workshop.

RCSSD gets LGBT boost from BLF’s RC (phew)

An exciting funding boost has been announced for the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama’s LGBT initiative. 

Thanks to the Big Lottery Fund’s (BLF) Reaching Communities (RC) program, a sum of almost £95,000 has been awarded to the conservatoire’s initiative. RCSSD’s on-going project seeks to explore and expose the issues and problems faced by LGBT people, and to hear their stories. Through conversations and workshops with LGBT people of all ages, Central School seeks to allow the marginalised group to share and explore their experiences through the healing process of performance. Eight workshops will be held throughout the year to run this initiative.

Central is known for its outstanding research in theatrical fields. The conservatoire has a wide range of research projects that span across genres of theatre and performance, constantly exploring new ways to do drama, as well as new ways to use it.

Humanities, Schmanities, Arts, Farts

If you want a career, then study the STEM subjects… apparently.

In another obnoxiously ignorant move, government officials have lampooned the utility of arts subjects. Frighteningly, Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan has attacked arts subjects in a recent speech made at the opening of the ‘Your Life’ campaign, presumptuously suggesting them to be dead-ends. “…the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths)” Morgan said this week. The Secretary went on to say that young people are making decisions at 15 that will “hold them back” for the rest of their lives.

The message here seems to be that studying the humanities is a risk to your future career. I wonder if Nicky Morgan’s own degree held her back? Yes, indeed – Morgan’s own Jurisprudence degree happens to be one of the Humanities – the very fleet of faculties that she is attacking. Impressive that she has managed to make it all the way to the Secretary of Education with such a risky humanities degree. If only she had taken her own advice and studied science or maths; perhaps then we would have escaped her ignorance as Education Secretary.

It should be noted that Morgan’s comments may have been twisted out of context; while trying to promote the importance and benefits of studying a STEM subject, perhaps she has easily been misconstrued as bad-mouthing the arts. The Independent reports that “a source” at the Department of Education claimed that Morgan was not “downgrading the importance of arts subjects are all” but that “it makes sense” to keep studying STEM subjects if pupils are seeking to advance to a career in technology etc, etc.. It’s a stretch, but thank god we have a government to tell us that we should study technology if we want to work in IT. That one really would have stumped us. Phew.

Rob Warner, the Dean of Humanities at the University of Chichester says “Studying the Humanities made my careers possible, in commercial publishing, the voluntary sector and university teaching and research, management and leadership.” As a study of human experience, it seems like its a section of study that shouldn’t be discounted.

The stance rather unfortunately –  and likely inadvertently – adopted by our Secretary of Education is not a new one. Head teachers, including my own, have called subjects like drama and art “soft” for decades now. You can bet that they still go home and watch Game of Thrones though with a glass of wine and sense of superiority, mindless of the fact that George R. R. Martin, Shakespeare and Queen, Monet and Rowling were all a bit artistically inclined when it came down to it. This perception of the arts as a futile pursuit seems proliferated by common ignorance of its inherent power. Science and maths are undoubtedly what make the world, but art and literature are what create and change it. This view needs to change and change fast. In a world where education is being constantly reformed, discrimination against arts subjects is something that should be addressed. Theatre is being reformed, so are novels, so is art. Education needs to change too. This blog is about the renewal and reinventions of theatre, and if that is to continue, we need new students studying drama and re-imagining it in new forms. If there were no artists, it would be a very bland world and just like Einstein said (I’m pretty sure he studied science or something), if a fish forever judges its intelligence by how well it climbs a tree, it will forever think it is stupid.

What’s your opinion on Nicky Morgan’s comments? Have you ever experienced humanities bashing? Please let me know in your comments.

Beautiful artwork by kerbyrosanes