The Entertainer – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Curve, Anthology Theatre and Simon Friend Entertainment present 
The Entertainer
by John Osborne 
directed by Sean O’Connor
Curve Theatre, Leicester
26 – 31 August 2019

Sometimes it’s not clear why a classic play is restaged and set in a different time, or even why it is revisited at all, giving off a faint whiff of a celebrity vehicle or gimmick. Not so with Curve’s new co-production with Anthology Theatre and Simon Friend Entertainment of John Osborne’s 1957 classic The Entertainer and the casting of Shane Richie as our antihero, Archie Rice.

Osborne’s original focus was of a divisive England, with The Entertainer written in the aftermath of the country’s involvement in the Suez crisis and adjusting to the arrival of migrant workers from around the world.

In this production, reset to 1982: the country is in the grip of Thatcher’s Britain, the Iron Lady has dispatched the armed forces to the Falklands following invasion by Argentina and Archie Rice—now reimagined as an old-style stand-up comedian who finds his special brew of racism, misogyny and sexism of reducing appeal to audiences—is forced to confront his life and career.

Rice’s home life is as dysfunctional as his stage act. His marriage to his second wife Phoebe (Sara Crowe) is under constant threat from his philandering and failed business ventures. After a long absence, Archie’s daughter Jean (from his first marriage) arrives, escaping a row with her fiancé. Phoebe worries about her soldier son Mick fighting for his country in the South Atlantic, fusses over Archie’s dad Billy (Pip Donaghy), a past star of the stage himself, and finds some support from her other son Frank (Christopher Bonwell).

Alcohol is a crutch, with the whole family appearing to exist entirely on a diet of gin, beer and Dubonnet. Only Billy seems able to (occasionally) resist the large measures flowing throughout the two-hour play.

As the Falklands War plays out and Archie’s stage act withers, now infamous headlines from The Sun, news broadcasts and snippets of Mrs Thatcher’s addresses to the nation are projected onto a drop screen. Audio extracts from a Not the 9 O’Clock News show sketch (the new upstarts of alternative comedy) highlight racism in the police and are a clever inclusion.

No mention of a set designer in the programme, however, director Sean O’Connor, along with Tim Mitchell’s lighting design, Chris James’s sound design and props supervisor Lizzie Frankl, create a claustrophobic living area for the Rices, complete with framed portraits of the Queen and Tretchikoff’s ubiquitous “Chinese Girl”.

Careful placement of the Union Flag—whether draped over a coffin, as Archie Rice’s last costume change, or the bunting still hanging limply over the window after past celebrations for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee—all symbolise the UK facing questions about her future. And you can’t fail to think of the situation we find ourselves in now: party politics playing out minute by minute and questions about our relationship with ourselves and the world. This is powerful imagery.

Resetting this piece allows Shane Richie to shake off any possible shackles from past iconic ‘Archies’, notably Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. Archie Rice is a challenging character to convey given he is always performing, whether for his family, his dwindling audience, trying to convince himself as well as us out there in the auditorium. And Archie’s behaviour is not appealing, so it is to Richie’s great credit we come to care about the choices he makes. This is not just the Shane Richie show though and the entire cast is strong; Crowe particularly reveals Phoebe’s strength of character in a desperate situation.

Now embarking on a national tour, this timely production provides a sobering reflection on social politics, family dynamics and comedy, as well as a strident endorsement of Osborne’s status as a pioneer of contemporary British theatre.

Images by Helen Murray

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Reflections – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Ayikodans presents
Reflections
Choreographed by Jeanguy Saintus 
Leicester Cathedral as part of Let’s Dance International Frontiers Festival 2019

Reflections, a new commission by acclaimed Haitian choreographer Jeanguy Saintus and his company Ayikodans, marks the launch of the 9th annual Let’s Dance International Frontiers (LDIF) 2019 festival in Leicester.

Always opening on International Dance Day (29 April), the festival’s theme this year is Black Dance: A Contemporary Voice, and over the course of the next couple of weeks until 11 May, venues around Leicester will showcase and celebrate “the pioneers from the African and African Caribbean diaspora who have shaped the dance ecology internationally”.

Spirituality is another theme for LDIF 2019, and Leicester Cathedral, the venue chosen for this opening performance is particularly apt. Reflections is Saintus’s interpretation of his thirty-year involvement in dance and his relationship with his home country. Considering Haiti’s inextricable relationship with vodou culture, this performance at the altar of a Church of England cathedral adds intriguing layers of discord and harmony (although frustratingly, with seating on the level, lines of sight are inevitably affected and much of the floor work was only visible by those on the front row).

With a golden light shining on the altar from the sun behind us, four dancers dressed in black tunics edged with coloured beads each take up a broom, sometimes used as a tool for its original purpose, sometimes appearing as a yoke across the shoulders, sometimes brandished as a weapon as the dancers striking warrior-like poses.

The four dancers (Emmanuel Gerant, Mackenson Israel Blanchard, Johnnoiry Saint Philippe and Sephora Germain) are stunning in their control, poise and intensity throughout the piece, whether dancing solo, in duet or ensemble. The programme notes that the company performs work which highlights tenacity and survival against the odds, rooted in folklore and tradition. Considering Haiti’s history, survival against the odds is very much a part of everyday life, where slavery, colonisation and corruption, as well as the devastation of the earthquake in 2010 have all left their indelible scars. In terms of accessibility, I would have found some additional programme information on Saintus’s influences and techniques, and / or the folklore which inspired the piece quite helpful as this is a difficult piece to follow with limited knowledge.

That said, this is an impressive commission and the venue certainly added both synergy and oppositional forces. My take on this performance as a whole is one of struggle, sadness but also resilience—I felt a sense of conflict with a higher being, of fighting against an unseen force. Every movement is carried to its fullest conclusion: claw-like fingers extend, muscle-straining holds and strong silhouettes are sustained, then released from position. These rigid movements combine and contrast with more fluid, animalistic poses, and sometimes jerky responses, as if controlled by another. The dancers’ relationship with their hair in one of the later routines is effective, as is the more uplifting final sequence involving water—perhaps a cleansing and release? Drumming and song are key elements of Haitian culture, and the exhilarating drum beats, mournful tones of a cello and chant-like vocals complement the intensity of the dance.

A mesmerising and fascinating performance.

Images by Daniel Azoulay

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Two more soups

I’ve been honing a couple of my regular soups. Plus, it happens to be #StopFoodWasteDay today – both soups help reduce waste, either by using items from the freezer, or finding a use for leftover leaves from salad bags. I’ve made the second soup with Little Gem remnants, rocket, and with mixed leaves, all of which add a nice depth of flavour.

Butternut squash soup with a chilli kick
(makes 2 good-sized bowlfuls)

1 large onion, chopped
a little oil
1 500g bag frozen butternut squash (or 1 large, fresh squash, peeled, de-seeded and chopped)
2 large red chillies, 1 chopped plus 1 whole one for the pot
1 large potato
1 vegetable stock
seasoning to taste

Heat oil or butter in a large saucepan and soften onion for a few minutes.

Add the chopped chilli, stir for a few minutes, add the butternut squash, potato, crumble in the stock cube and add enough water to cover the veg plus another half inch. Score down one side of the whole chilli and add to the saucepan. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes or so.

Remove whole chilli (although I guess you could just blitz it in if you want a bigger kick), blend contents of saucepan and add more boiled water if needed. Season and serve.

Verdict: A good earthy, warming soup. I’m a bit of a chilli wimp so if you like more heat in your life/soup, ramp up the chilli level …

Courgette and salad soup

(makes two good-sized bowlfuls)

1 large onion, chopped
a little oil or butter
2 courgettes, sliced
1 large potato, diced
leftover salad leaves
1 vegetable stock cube
season to taste

Heat oil or butter in a large saucepan and soften onion for a few minutes.

Add courgette and cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in potato, crumble stock cube into saucepan and add salad leaves. Pour in enough boiling water to cover vegetables to about half an inch above them. Stir, cover and leave to simmer for 20 minutes or so or until potatoes are soft.

Blend to desired consistency, adding more boiled water if too thick.

Verdict: a good soup, fresh coriander would work well in this too

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Biscuits made from Biscoff? Mind-blowing …

Warning: these biscuits may mess with your mind.

My resident teen introduced me to Biscoff spread, a smooth spread fashioned from the little biscuits you often get with coffee or tea when out and about. And like the biscuits, the spread has a distinctive and intense caramel flavour.

I was asked if I could make biscuits with a spread made from biscuits. What?! This messed with my mind – a meta biscuit, a biscuit within a biscuit, a Matrix biscuit?

Reader, I made them.

 

Verdict: unsurprisingly, the intensity of the caramel flavour is slightly reduced, I’d say a mellower version of the strong caramel hit of the original, but still a good biscuit.

I’ve also provided a variation on my basic short biscuit recipe, this time using peanut butter (with chocolate chips which I consider to be essential). This also works well with gluten free flour.

Biscoff biscuits
4oz/100g butter
2oz/50g golden caster sugar
6oz self-raising flour
2 good dessert spoons (approx 20z/50g) Biscoff spread

Preheat oven to 180C/Gas 4.

Cream butter and sugar together. Add remaining ingredients and bring together to a fairly stiff dough.

Divide and roll walnut-sized pieces in your hands (makes about 20), and place on a piece of baking parchment on a large baking tray (or two smaller trays).

Press down gently on each biscuit with a fork to make slight indentations.

Bake for about 10 – 12 mins (due to their colour, it’s harder to tell if they’re done. Go with the timings rather than appearance to avoid overcooking – no more than 12 minutes if the oven is fully pre-heated). Cool slightly then transfer to a cooling rack.

Peanut butter and choc chip biscuits

4oz/100g butter
2oz/50g golden caster sugar
6oz self-raising flour/or gluten free SR flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 good dessert spoons (approx 2oz/50g) smooth peanut butter
most of a 100g bag of chocolate chips (eat the rest!)

Preheat oven to 180C/Gas 4.

Cream butter and sugar together. Add remaining ingredients and bring together to a fairly stiff dough.

Divide and roll wanut-sized pieces in your hands (makes about 20), and place on a piece of baking parchment on a large baking tray (or two smaller trays).

Press down gently on each biscuit with a fork to make slight indentations.

Bake for about 10 – 12 mins, they should have a golden tinge. Cool slightly then transfer to a cooling rack.

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From the jaws of disaster … a new cheesecake is born

Flapjack has always been ‘a thing’ for me, mainly making it and eating it.  Perhaps it’s because flapjack and I share the same surname/final syllable?

Over the last few years, I adapted my mother’s basic ratio of 8/6/4 oats/butter/dark brown sugar by adding a hefty tablespoon of honey to the fat during the melting process. This yields a lovely squidgy and darkly comforting flapjack. Or at least, it should.

I recently had an issue in that it didn’t stick together properly and I ended up with a few usable squares and a mound of moist granola (NB in the recipe below, the oven temp and timings are certainly what should yield good results).

With my flapjack reputation in danger of collapsing into a pile of crumbs, what could I do?

Melting another ounce or so of fat, I bound the flapjack crumbs together, pressed them into a cake tin (with a removable base) and chilled them in the fridge.

Combining condensed milk, cream cheese, lemon juice and zest, a new take on a cheesecake emerged. Verdict? The oaty base was firm, the topping unctuous and creamy but a nice level of tartness from the lemon. Pretty good, actually.

PS I’m still pondering a name for it – flapcake, cheesejack, lemon jackcake? In some ways I hope I don’t have to make this again as it could mean I’m due flak about my flapjack.

Flapjack
(this quantity should make about 20 squares in a greased, 12″ by 9″ traybake tin)
1lb oats
12 oz butter,
8oz soft dark brown sugar
a good 1 1/2 tablespoons of runny honey

Preheat oven 180C/Gas 4
Melt the butter and honey together over a low heat.
Stir the sugar into the oats, crumbling any of the larger, hard lumps of sugar
Stir the butter and honey into the oats and sugar until fully coated.
Press evenly into the tin, bake for approx 20 minutes.
Score into squares and leave to cool in the tin.

Cheesecake
About half the above quantity of flapjack bound together with about an ounce of melted butter.
Press into an 8inch springform, removable base cake tin. Chill for a good 30 minutes or so.

Mix together 180g tub of cream cheese, two thirds of a 397g can of condensed milk, juice of one lemon. Add zest if liked.

Pour onto the flapjack base and chill for a further hour or so or until firm.

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Barber Shop Chronicles – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Fuel, National Theatre and Leeds Playhouse present
Barber Shop Chronicles
by Inua Ellams 
directed by Bijan Sheibani
Curve Theatre, Leicester 
to 

In one of the most enjoyable pre-sets I’ve ever encountered, the cast of Barber Shop Chronicles invite the arriving audience on stage for a (fake) haircut, selfies galore and dancing to a pumping bass beat.

As us customers drift away to our seats, the cast gather centre-stage, look up to a TV screen, celebrate a goal and we’re off on a journey in and out of six barber shops between England and Africa, specifically Lagos, Kampala, Harare, Accra, Johannesburg and London.

In a series of vignettes, with the 12-strong cast often playing multiple roles, barber and customer(s) pontificate on life, football and the way things are as the characters’ connecting threads are gradually revealed. Masculinity doesn’t always get a good press with column inches often debating questions along the lines of “so just what does it mean to be a man in the 21st century?”. Based on the evidence in Inua Ellams’s text—which zings and sings with humour and humanity—the answer is not clear-cut, but what does shine through is a good heart and a strong sense of respect, empathy and shared values.

The backbone of the play features Samuel (Mohammed Mansaray) who works a chair at the barbers run by his father’s friend and business partner Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu). Samuel’s father is absent, and the reasons for Samuel’s aggression towards Emmanuel become apparent in the emotional final sections of this engrossing play. As well as getting a damn fine haircut, topics for discussion include nervousness at becoming a father, experiences of domestic abuse, absent fathers. Emmanuel Ighodaro as Simphiwe, addled with drink, delivers an angry tirade aimed at Nelson Mandela, resentful Mandela never held the perpetrators of oppression and apartheid sufficiently to account.

The supremely talented cast switch expertly between beautifully drawn characters, some in grave danger of stealing the show. A case in point is Demmy Ladipo and his outrageous ‘Bad Boy’ commanding the Three Kings barbers in London as well as the stage with his theories on the pros and cons of bedding black and white women.

Ellams’s skill and renown as a poet shines through the lively dialogue, not only his vivid turns of phrase and authentic humour but with the characters’ own consideration of their respective languages. The discussion on Pidgin English and ‘owning’ controversial terms really highlights how language and identity are so closely connected, particularly when you are far from your homeland. There’s a joke about basmati rice I didn’t quite catch but it drew loud, appreciative roars of approval from the audience.

Bijan Sheibani’s direction, Rae Smith’s design and movement direction by Aline David are a perfect marriage with the scene transitions, a joy of song and a dance of barber shop chairs and paraphernalia.

Since its successful opening in 2017 at the National Theatre and a world tour last year, this touching insight into black masculinity is now on a UK tour. Yes, this is life viewed from a male experience, but at no point did I feel this was not for me—it is fascinating, hugely enjoyable and, as if you’ve had the sharpest haircut ever, you’ll leave feeling on top of the world.

Images by Marc Brenner

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Victoria – review

This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide

Northern Ballet with The National Ballet of Canada present
Victoria
Choreography, direction and scenario Cathy Marston, music Philip Feeney 
Curve Theatre, Leicester 
to 

Never a company to shy away from a challenging story, and in their first co-production (here with The National Ballet of Canada), Northern Ballet tackle the long reign of Queen Victoria in their new ballet Victoria, currently mid-way through a UK tour.

Ambitious in scope, Victoria’s main focus is on the complex relationship between Beatrice, Victoria’s youngest child, but also covers the 64 years of her reign, the births of her nine children and her rule over a growing empire.

Beatrice was only four years-old when her father, and Victoria’s beloved husband Albert, died. With a play on the idea that history is written by the victors, at the end of her life, Victoria entrusted her 122 diaries to Beatrice who acted as editor and censor, destroying parts of her mother’s recollections. Beatrice can’t have known her father well, her memories doubtless shaped by her mother, and in grief, Victoria clung to Beatrice in a stifling relationship.

Beatrice is on stage throughout as her older self (Mariana Rodrigues), in the first act as spectator to her past as she relives her life as a child and young woman through her mother’s diaries. Victoria (Antoinette Brooks-Daw) is selfish and impetuous but lonely, and her relationship with John Brown (Gavin McCaig) causes division in the family, his demise accelerated after taking an assassin’s bullet for his queen.

As a young woman, Beatrice (Rachael Gillespie) manages to break free of her mother’s grip to enjoy a brief romance with Liko (Jonathan Hanks), a soldier. Victoria eventually allows her to marry as long as the young couple live with her, but Beatrice joins her mother in grief following his death in battle. It is a telling and heartbreaking moment when, in her own mourning black, Victoria dresses her daughter in widow’s weeds, re-possessing her.

Act two is more a period of discovery for Beatrice as she reads about her mother as a young woman ascending the throne, her reliance on Lord Medbourne (Riko Ito) until her painful break from his influence when she falls in love with Albert (Sean Bates). Throughout, older Beatrice watches, reads, re-writes and rips pages from the diaries, punctuated by the scratch of nib on paper as her editorial work is done (the sound is created electronically from a cello, and is a clever motif in Philip Feeney’s majestic score).

Cathy Marston manages to convey so much in her choreography, whether that is the passing of time (a loose interpretation rather than rigidly chronological), or of a powerful woman operating in a man’s world, as well as passionate depictions of loss and love. Symbolism is everywhere, demonstrated well when Victoria wraps herself in her world, literally, with a cloth map denoting India as part of her sprawling empire. Steffen Aarfing’s set and costume design is suitably regal—the archivists’ ribbed tunics, like the leaves of a diary, are an intriguing feature.

The pas de deux between Brooks-Daw and Bates as the young queen with her husband and Gillespie and Ashcroft finally able to express their love are beautifully done. The pas de trois, as Rodrigues shadows Gillespie and Ashcroft as her younger self, are searing in their romance and emotion. The love stories, whether between mother and daughter or as the two young couples, are what works best in this ballet, and I found them immensely moving.

(NB Such is the versatility of the company, the main roles for this performance were played by other dancers not featured in the production images.)

Images by Zoe Martin

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