Play review

Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers


Over the last few years, our theatres have been flooded with literary adaptations. In London, Treasure Island and an RSC staging of Wolf Hall are proving popular, while Oxford student theatre last year brought us triumphant productions of Frankenstein and Lord of the Flies. The theatre has become an exciting place to visualise the written word, and one less predictable or traditional than the cinema.

While a novel might be a clear starting point for such a transformation, David Hare’s new play Behind the Beautiful Forevers instead bases its script on Katherine Boo’s vast work of non-fiction that documents a panorama of poverty and corruption in the slums neighbouring Mumbai airport. Hare’s play centres mainly on the rubbish-pickers, their free-swearing matriarch’s struggle with one particularly nasty neighbour, and the whole family’s battle with the justice system.

The production is visually breathtaking, starting suddenly with a huge commotion of vehicles, a sea of dirty plastic bottles and cardboard. What seems a horribly claustrophobic slum rapidly transforms into a grotty clinic, a juvenile detention centre and wide motorways. The attention to detail, colour, and lighting are exquisite, while director Rufus Norris makes the most of the Olivier’s fantastic revolving stage, especially in the closing scene.

The cast were also impressive, the vast majority of whom are either Asian or of Asian descent themselves, reflecting a real triumph for diversity on the London stage. Meera Syal is confident as Zehrunisa, perhaps the play’s focal point and just one of many strong and nuanced female parts in the production. Shane Zaza brings great depth and honesty to her hard-working son, Abdul, while the naïve energy of Hiran Abeysekera’s Sunil is a joy to watch.

However, Hare’s script balks at the task of conveying such a huge scale of slum life. Boo’s 260 pages are condensed into a few hours, and often the shifts in tone are clunky or unconvincing. The bloodcurdlingly gory and tragic moments of the play (be warned: there are many) are not given enough time to breathe, swiftly interrupted by an inappropriately upbeat Bhangra soundtrack. Perhaps this is a deliberate attempt from Rufus Norris to show the chaos and confusion of life as a rubbish-picker, but it ultimately falls flat and undermines the gravity of the more tender moments of the play.

The first half of the production is very successful in its mesmerising illustration of slum filth, though does little to ground us in the human intrigue of the characters on the stage. The attention-grabbing effect of hundreds of plastic bottles cascading from the flies is far more memorable than any of the play’s dialogue or relationships. After the interval, the various new settings we encounter only really serve to confuse us and leave us struggling to hang on to an increasingly fragmented plot.

Rufus Norris does a fantastic job with a rather underwhelming and fragile script in this first production of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. While the staging is perfectly executed, the play itself is far from ready to become a part of the canon.


Review: Conscientious

Review: Conscientious


Pillbox Theatre’s debut play Conscientious recounts a young professional’s experience of life in the office and the drama’s that come with it. Largely set in her workplace, this one-woman show provides a moving account of her experience of office bullying and her struggle to survive.

Rebekah (Rachel Ashwanden) is a fresh-faced and motivated university graduate on an office grad scheme whose all-time hero is her great grandfather, a conscientious objector in WWI. The play relates the bravery of conscientious objectors in WW1 to the difficulty of standing up for our principles in the modern day world. As the writer’s foreword says ‘it’s a play which asks more questions than it answers’ and leaves you questioning the use of personal values in daily life.

Rachel Ashwanden is impressive and, although alone, keeps the audience engaged throughout. Light relief is provided by candid jokes and musical interludes which break the play up into episodes. Although the music is sometimes a little jolted when replayed, it gives some useful time for reflection after particularly dramatic moments.

The simple yet versatile set is used to great effect; it is constantly helping to convey and illustrate the protagonist’s emotions. Seeing someone appear so downtrodden on stage moves the audience, especially in such a relatable situation.

Although the play is generally well executed, the actress’s image, especially her make-up, is somewhat puzzling. Given that it’s not addressed in any way, it can at times distract from the story she is recounting.

Conscientious is overall a very thought-provoking and moving production. Having learnt about the plight of conscientious objectors at school, it is interesting for an audience to see these experiences related to the present day.

A potential alternative to a wild night out, Conscientious, though not the lightest of plays, will certainly spark a good discussion afterwards.

Conscientious is now on tour until early December. For dates see:


First Night Review – Latin! or Tobacco and Boys ***

Latin! or Tobacco and Boys is a play by Stephen Fry set in the fictional Chartham Preparatory School. Although lacking in some aspects, Manywhere Productions  is successful in transporting the audience back to school, specifically to the Latin lessons led by Mr Clarke, ensuring they remain amused at all times.

In a neat piece of staging, some of the audience are invited to sit on benches onstage, becoming the pupils stuck in Mr Clarke’s Latin class: exercise books are handed out to the audience members as they inadvertently become the targets of his wickedly droll verbal abuse: Barnabas Iley-Williamson was extremely effective in playing out the witty dialogue and keeping spirits up. The consistently funny performances of Barnabas Iley-Williamson and Louis Fletcher, who play schoolmasters Mr Dominic Clarke and Mr Herbert Brookshaw, soon managed to thaw the audience.

In his non-sequitur explanation of the merit and demerit system, Louis Fletcher achieved many moments of laughter from the audience, but he did not match Iley-Williamson in sustaining the animated mood. Struggling with projection, there was no middle ground when it came to his vocal and physical expression: it seemed he could only go from the manic highs of jumping on desks to the extreme lows of being barely audible. The effortless humour of the script is perhaps a hindrance at times, because it allows the actors to rely on it too much and become complacent; but it might just be the stress of opening night.

The lighting was at times a bit puzzling with certain choices that were unnecessary and annoying, such as a few too many blackouts and superfluous dimming. The only time the dimming of the lights seemed to be effective was when Mr Clarke confesses his secret relationship with the 15 year old Cartwright. The gravity of the subject of a teacher-pupil affair is handled well by Iley-Williamson’s Mr Clarke, as he explains himself through a longing for his boyhood and his lifelong sense of disbelonging.

Instead of an interval, the audience were drawn further back into the world of school by the replacement of break-time: sounds of the playground accompanied the delicious distribution of Chelsea buns. When Iley-Williamson’s Mr Clarke reads out the class’ Latin exam results with comical attacks on each pupil, it was another warm reminder of schooldays long gone – a point that describes the whole play.  Nostalgia for the long-gone days of school was successfully created in this production and brought a smile to one’s face that it was hard to keep off.

3 stars

Latin! or Tobacco and Boys is on at the Burton Taylor Studio this week from Wednesday until Saturday at 7.30pm, tickets £6 (£5 concessions)

For the trailer, please follow the link:

PHOTO/Adam Levy

Something rotten in the state asylum of Denmark

I was not even meant to go and see it, but with a few hours to spare in London I looked up current plays in London and called up to see if there were any spare tickets for Hamlet: luckily, the Young Vic had an empty seat for the night and I was definitely glad I bought the ticket. So many people take a Shakespearean play into a modern setting, but it is extremely rare and special for a production to pull it off entirely: but the Young Vic’s production of Hamlet with Michael Sheen in the starring role has accomplished this daunting task. Eerie, fresh, innovative and exciting this completely trumped any Shakespeare play I have ever seen.

On the phone, I was told to arrive at least thirty minutes before performance time to experience the mysterious ‘pre-show journey’: I was intrigued and keen not to miss out on anything that fully immersed me in the theatrical experience so thought, why not? It turned out that the pre-show journey was an interesting way of firmly establishing the cold and clinical setting of a mental asylum in the minds of the audience members. On arrival, the first fifty of us audience members were taken round the back of theatre and led through pale green corridors adorned with notice-boards: eerily quaint music accompanied us in our journey as we passed soundproofed windows, looking into a gymnasium where men in blue scrubs were playing with a ball. An announcement telling us to turn off all electronic devices due to their interference with ‘treatments’ was a phrase that stood out as an unusual take on the conventional ‘please turn off your mobile phones’.

Wily, electric and energetic, Michael Sheen’s Hamlet is a mental patient who is refused leave from the asylum by James Clyde’s therapist Claudius who charmingly manipulates everyone around him in his Joker-like purple suit. The hexagonal shape of the theatre-in-the-round performance space was well-suited to the confidential manner of Sheen’s soliloquies, making the audience wonder whether they themselves are extensions of Hamlet’s state of mental delusion. The ghost of Hamlet’s father was in fact an illusory figure created from Hamlet’s psychological derangement and when Gertrude proclaims that she cannot see the ghost, Hamlet’s slow realisation of his own insanity is poignantly illustrated by Sheen.

Due to Benedict Wong’s strong performance, his Laertes was the first with whom I have actually been able to empathise. Female actors, Eileen Walsh and Hayley Carmichael play the roles of the normally male Rosencrantz and Horatio which gave new, interesting dimensions to both characters: the intimacy of Horatio’s relationship with Hamlet became more touchingly apparent; whilst together with Adeel Akhtar’s Guildenstern, Hamlet’s unfair change in his regard for his friends was more sympathetic towards them.

The whole setting of a mental asylum worked brilliantly: Michael Gould’s Polonius became a well-meaning, bumbling doctor armed with a tape recorder and Sally Dexter’s smiling pill-popping Gertrude was wonderfully away-with-the-fairies. Normally, Ophelia’s descent into lunacy is not performed effectively, but Vinette Robinson executes this superbly: the scene in which she is desperately singing as she’s become confined to a wheelchair was one the most moving scene in the play. Best of all, was the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy where Hamlet’s grapple with the human condition and with himself was clearly and powerfully conveyed by Sheen. The exceptional standard of acting by every single cast member was equalled by the adventurous use of the set, above all the large rectangular pit that was created from a chunk of the stage being flown out in the second half. At the end of the play, young Fortinbras and his men came dressed in black with masks to take over the asylum and do a clean-up, covering the pit now full of all the dead bodies with crime scene black liner. When young Fortinbras removes his mask, the audience are left wondering whether the whole experience has been a purging process of Hamlet’s troubled mind and the corrupt surrounding which has driven him to madness.

Five stars to an outstanding production that is an illuminating experience of Shakespeare’s finest play.

PHOTO/Gage Skidmore

Pretty well-Maid

With a basis of sadomasochism and lesbianism, this appeared to fit the bill as to what constitutes a successful production in Oxford.

Based on the chilling story of the Papin sisters, Genet sheds a new light on the plot, keeping the main features of it but altering the final outcome. Genet can be seen to actively try and draw the audience into the created illusion before abruptly dispelling it, leaving the audience with a distinct sense of dissatisfaction.

This production has all the components to be successful; chatting to the cast after it is clear they have done a lot of research into the Papin sisters and understand fully what they are trying to express.

However at points they were unable to fully immerse the audience into the drama, resulting in less of an inquisitive wonderment and more of an absolute confusion at what is taking place.

Both Frances Hackett and Rachel Dedman were solid in their performances, portraying the servants’ state of mind successfully, as well as exploring the role-play of Madame in an enlightening manner. However, it was Roseanna Frascona who pulled the whole performance together, her strong portrayal of Madame making sense of many prior allusions and offering a new dynamic to the piece.

It is possible that more regular changes of pace could distinguish between fantasy and reality more distinctly. Genet is a playwright who enjoys the muted explosion of an anti-climax more than most, but this doesn’t quite come through yet in their portrayal.

Whilst aspects of the play seemed to lack a distinct edge, all the actors were impressive in their expression of individuals who have twisted logic and brutal desires.

All that needs to be found is that je ne sais quoi that will draw the whole production together: this has the potential to be a fantastic play, trapping the audience in the claustrophobic confines of the human mind, but for now ‘potential’ is the operative word.

A bit of an alchemiss

The Alchemist
Ben Jonson
O’Reilly Theatre
Weds-Sat 7.30pm

Rating: 2/5

Ben Jonson’s classic play is a tight, well-structured satire depicting and dissecting the follies and weaknesses of Renaissance England.

The vices it portrays, however, such as greedy credulity and superstition, are truly timeless, shown through the two charismatic conmen, one of whom poses as the titular alchemist, swindling the mercantile classes of London.

The entire play, therefore, rests on the shoulders of the actors portraying the characters of Subtle and Face, in this case William Tyrell and Aiden Russell. Unfortunately, in this case, they simply can’t support it.

There is a particular sort of performance, usually reserved for plays-within-plays, that is consciously stilted and slightly forced, distinguishing between the act and the more naturalistic “non-play” play. This is how they deliver every line.

It is not clear whether this is a deliberate directorial decision, but it means that, since there are many points when the characters have to assume other personas or put on acts of their own, this reaches an almost pantomime level of unnaturalness, except it isn’t fun.

The delivery also renders many of the lines extremely difficult to understand, with strange emphases and pauses.

This is a real shame, because most of the supporting cast are very good. Claire Morley is an excellently soothing force on the pair as prostitute Dol Common, while Stephen Greatly and Frances Avery work well as the charmingly naïve victims of the scam.

It ends up working against the production, though, as their performances mean the audience ends up being far more sympathetic with those who are intended as the point of the satire.

The costumes are lovely, though being OUDS wardrobe regulars, you may recognise them from every other period piece in Oxford.

A lot of potential here, but ultimately a disappointment.

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