Reviews Roundup: Power of Sail 3.1★

Menier Chocolate Factory

Julian Ovenden and Giles Terera in Power of Sail. Photo: Manuel Harlan

In Paul Grellong’s play, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, a Harvard professor invites a racist, holocaust denier to a symposium. Various people are up in arms, freedom of speech is evoked, but as the would-be thriller travels back in time, it reveals there is more to various protagonists’ motives than their stated positions. There may have been an almighty row on stage, but in the stalls the critics showed a rare moment of unity (until a late review appeared). David Mamet is mentioned frequently in the reviews, both for content (remember Oleanna) and language, but the critics found Power of Sail fell short of greatness because there were too many twists to the plot. By the way, the title refers to the rule that says engine-driven ships must give way to sail boats. None of the critics came up with a satisfactory explanation of its relevance to the story.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar (3★) found much of interest:  ‘Paul Grellong’s intelligent if schematic play incorporates themes of cancel culture, Nazi legacies and the intersection between freedom of expression and hate speech.’ ‘it grips with its adrenalised dialogue,’ she said. ‘But,’ she said, ‘this is coupled with a briskness in plot – one twist after another – that pushes it forward at a rate of knots, while almost all of the characters turn out to be appalling in ways that feel too flat.’ Nick Curtis in The Standard (3★) agreed, even using the same adjective: ‘It’s an enjoyable and provoking watch, though the number of issues Grellong crams into 100 minutes means it’s necessarily schematic.’ Like others, he found ‘The rollercoaster of “aha” moments gradually shows diminishing returns.’

Sarah Crompton at Whats On Stage (3★) was on the same track. She said it ‘takes a fascinating subject and then via various unlikely plot twists, so muddies the water that its impact is blunted.’ Like the others, she found it superficial: ‘It ends up skating along the surface of a hugely important debate rather than digging deep.’ Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph (3★) was yet another who felt ‘the subject-matter cries out for more time to unpack.’ He clearly thought this was a shame because it was ‘a timely look at freedom of speech and the perils of taking sides at university, smartly directed, as ever, by Dominic Dromgoole.’ He found space to praise the lead actor Julian Ovenden, describing him as ‘convincingly acerbic’.

Clive Davis  in The Times (3★) appears to be more positive: ‘Not content with setting up a fast-paced debate about the limits of academic freedom, the American playwright catches us off balance with a shifting chronological structure which, in the second half, continually asks us to reassess the motivations of his main characters.’ But his positivity ran aground on the same rocks observed by the other reviewers: ‘It’s just a pity that Grellong tries to rush through many plot twists, some of them less than plausible.’ Did Patrick Marmion in the Mail (3★) take a different view? No: ‘Grellong also loses the dramatic focus of his would-be thriller by digressing.’

Mica Blackwell at Broadway World (3★) joined the procession: ‘Grellong’s snappy dialogue and Dominic Dromgoole’s direction keep the play punchy, but it feels too short to fully discuss the topics with the true nuance they deserve.’ ‘Maybe those conversations will be better discussed after watching the show,’ she added hopefully. Like the other critics, she praised the look of the show: ‘Paul Farnsworth’s sleek set captures the prestige of an Ivy League campus.’

But the critics’ unity was shattered when, a little after the others, Caroline McGinn’s review appeared at Time Out (4★) and told us why it was ‘Brisk, well-made and punchy’. ‘It has a genuinely exciting plot and a full-spectrum moral awareness of the murky motives and pitiless passions of identity politics…both together are an absolute treat.’ The ‘terrific’ play is, she said, ‘wisely and craftily directed by…Dominic Dromgoole.’

Power of Sail can be seen at The Menier Chocolate Factory until 12 May 2024. Buy tickets directly from menierchocolatefactory.com

Average critic rating (out of 5) 3.1★

Value rating  60 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price. In theory, this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is based on opening night prices- theatres may raise or lower prices during the run.)

If you’ve seen Power of Sail, you are welcome to add your review and rating below (but please keep it relevant and polite)

Reviews Roundup: The Divine Mrs S 2.9★

Hampstead Theatre

Photo: Johan Persson

Despite the Arts Council withdrawing its grant, Hampstead Theatre continues to present new work. The Divine Mrs S is a new comedy written by April De Angelis, directed by Anna Mackmin, and starring Rachael Stirling. It tells the story of the great 18th century actress Sarah Siddons as she tries to break free from the control and exploitation of the men around her. Stirling’s performance went down well with the critics. However the play itself was at one extreme an ‘absolute hoot’ and at the other ‘unfunny’; the direction was ‘fleet footed’ or ‘without pacing’; and it was a ‘drama that makes you burn at the injustice’ or else it was ‘pointless’. Unusually, it was a night on which the female reviewers outnumbered the men, and it would be neat to say the women liked it and the men didn’t, except the harshest critic was a woman.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]

For Claire Allfree in the Telegraph (4★), ‘A pitch-perfect Rachael Stirling brings an air of fruity exasperation to Siddons.’ She described the play as ‘beautifully skewering the entrenched hypocrisies surrounding female roles both on stage and in real life, The Divine Mrs S is an absolute hoot.’ As for the production, ‘Anna Mackmin’s fleet-footed production keeps the play’s light and dark tones and anachronistic sensibilities in fluent balance.’ Anya Ryan at Time Out (4★) was another enthusiast.: ‘To merge sharp comedy with drama that makes you burn at the injustice is no mean feat, but De Angelis has done it marvellously.’

Frey Kwa Hawking of Whats On Stage (3★) awarded one less star but still enjoyed her evening: ‘Anna Mackmin keeps things moving at a great clap, and harnesses the fun De Angelis is having with her language.’ She was also impressed by the way ‘Siddons, her life and enduring, existential questions about what to play and how to play it are done loving justice.’

The Guardian’s Arifa Akbar (3★) was more reserved in her praise: ‘ the larky comedy is good-natured and clever, but it does not deepen enough… and might have benefited from sharper pacing.’ ‘Rachael Stirling as Siddons puts fire into Anna Mackmin’s fitful production,’ said Susannah Clapp in The Observer (3★)

Cindy Marcolina of Broadway World (2★) didn’t like it at all, describing it as ‘a load of… silliness.’ ‘Very little happens,’ she complained. She went on, ‘It’s aimless and confused as well as riddled with static figurines who avoid going on any kind of personal journey.’ It is, she concluded, ‘a tired, unfunny comedy that doesn’t have a point.’

And so to the male critics. For The Standard’s Nick Curtis (2★), it was ‘Disappointing.’  ‘Rachael Stirling’s imperious, high-comic performance as Sarah Siddons is the saving grace of this aimless and tiresomely in-jokey play,’ he said. He didn’t like the direction, saying the play was ‘left to meander without pacing or purpose’. He conceded, ‘Many of the jokes are very funny but they rob the story of weight.’

Dominic Maxwell in The Times (2★) also found a redeeming feature in the ‘highly watchable’ Rachael Stirling. Thank goodness, because, ‘Beyond that, the feminist satire, the handsome staging and the forcible fun of the playing add up to less than the sum of their playfully mock-Georgian parts.’

The divine Mrs S can be seen at Hamostead Theatre until 27 April 2024. Buy tickets direct from Hampstead Theatre

Average critic rating (out of 5) 2.9★

Value rating  52 (Value rating is the Average Critic Rating divided by the typical ticket price. In theory, this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is based on opening night prices- theatres may raise or lower prices during the run.)

If you’ve seen The Divine Mrs S, you are welcome to add your review and rating below (but please keep it relevant and polite)

Keeley Hawes in The Human Body – review

Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport rise above a messy play

★★★
Actors Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport hold each other with a camera operator in the backgound in a scene from stage play The Human Body by Lucy Kirkwood at the Donmar Warehouse
Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport in The Human Body. Photo: Marc Brenner

The Human Body at the Donmar Warehouse in London tells the story of a middle-aged love affair to the background of the birth of the NHS.

Lucy Kirkwood‘s inspiration is Brief Encounter and other British films of the immediate postwar era that looked at women in a changing society. To hammer the point home, there are multiple occasions in the production when the action is videoed and shown on the back wall as a black-and-white film. Video has been used quite a bit in theatre productions recently, notably in Ivo von Hove‘s  A Little Life and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but Ivo von Hove this isn’t. For me, the filming was a distraction, not a reinforcement, made worse, much worse, by having cameras and camera operators on stage, getting in the way, and killing the moment.
Maybe Lucy Kirkwood and the directors Michael Longhurst and Ann  Lee meant us to be alienated so that, rather get too tied up in the love story, we could observe from a distance the parallels between the revolution in health care and women’s desire to abandon pre-war traditional behaviour.
The argument for universal health care is strongly made, the case for an affair between a rising politician and a fading movie star more uncertain. She rarely goes to the cinema and he is disinterested in politics, albeit able to quote Charlie Chaplin’s inspiring anti-fascist speech from The Great Dictator. Perhaps part of the attraction lies in each being outside the other’s world.
There is certainly a physical attraction between the two- the dice are definitely loaded by having them played by Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport–  and they do have in common that both are unhappy in their marriages, but, as in Brief Encounter, good old fashioned guilt and duty threaten to pull them apart. The echoes of the film are many but with some crucial changes. She, not he, is the GP. Both have greater reasons than a simple morality to stick with their spouses. And the sense of guilt and duty, in her case, extends beyond her family to take in the Party and her patients. The physical consummation of their affair is more satisfactory, shall we say, than in Brief Encounter.
Lucy Kirkwood’s dialogue is touching, heartfelt and funny and it’s an absorbing ‘will she, won’t she’ story. Ben and Max Ringham‘s score works well, sounding more like the tense background to a 1940s thriller than the stirring Rachmaninov piano notes of Brief Encounter. If only the production was as fast or exciting as the music.
Keeley Hawes plays a multi-tasking modern woman, not only a GP and would-be Labour MP, but also a wife and mother. Her husband has been disabled when fighting in the war. So, whether to save her marriage is just one of many choices she has to make. This makes the story more interesting as well as giving Ms Hawes many opportunities to display a middle-class stiff upper lip hiding a volcano of emotions.   Often, when containing her feelings, she adopts a tight smile, but when she laughs, it’s as if an extra light shines on the stage. Her speech in favour of the new socialism and an end to Victorian values was so passionate, it actually received a round of applause from the audience. At all times, she commands the stage.
Admittedly, she is probably too glamorous for the ordinary woman she is meant to be. In fact, there is an unintentional moment of humour when her husband says ‘I hate your body’. There were audible intakes of breath from some people in the audience on the night I was there, as if they couldn’t believe anyone would reject the immaculate Keeley Hawes.

Top Class Cast

Tom Goodman-Hill, Siobhan Redmond & Pearl Mackie in The Human Body. Photo: Mar Brenner

All the actors are top class. Jack Davenport was full of self deprecating charm as a gone-to-seed film star. Siobhan Redmond, Pearl Mackie and Tom Goodman-Hill excel in multiple parts. Thank goodness, because they save the evening.

I can’t help feeling this play was not designed for the Donmar. Fly Davis‘ mainly dark blue set design with a revolve creates a sense of the monochrome austerity of the late 1940s and, with the audience on three sides, she wisely keeps the props to a minimum. However, unless you sit in the centre block of seats, your view of the high-up screen will inevitably be partially obscured. Much more detrimental than this, though, are the many scene changes which should have been fast moving and fluid but are slowed down by mobile props- tables, chairs and so on- being trundled on and off the empty stage via the aisles in the auditorium. Worse than the time this consumed in an already overlong play is the distracting noise of the wheels and of technicians whispering into headsets.
Earlier in the day, across the river at the National, I had seen Nye, the epic story of the Labour politician who was the driving force behind the creation of the NHS. The Human Body might have been a counterpoint, offering a microcosm about the creation of the health service at a local level. Instead, while strands of the story do offer insights into the struggles within the Labour Party, and the resistance of the medical profession and the need for free healthcare, these are not the focal point. However, along with the other distractions, they are enough to take the focus away from the conflicted love affair.
The Human Body is at Donmar Warehouse, London, until 13 April. Click here to buy tickets directly from the theatre.
Paul paid for his ticket

Infinite Life – National Theatre – review

Annie Baker’s outstanding play about women coping with pain

★★★★

Two women sit next to one another, one is wearing a rucksack, in a stage production of infinite Life by Annie Baker
Christina Kirk & Marylouise Burke in Infinte Life. Photo: Marc Brenner

Infinite Life by Annie Baker, which I saw at the National Theatre’s Dorfman, is a play you might find riveting or soporific, or both. Five women all have illnesses that are causing them chronic pain but that conventional medicine has been unable to treat. Desperate for a cure, they have resorted to fasting in a retreat in California.

They lie on sun loungers, they doze, they sip their water or green drinks… and they talk. There’s no action, no emotional explosions, no-one dies, and no dramatic plot twists, although there is an interesting development at the end.

It sounds like a snooze-fest, and in fact some members of the audience did doze or even leave, but I was engrossed by this outstanding play.

Infinite Life may remind you of Waiting For Godot and its days apparently repeating into infinity. Like Beckett’s play, there is not much drama but a lot going on beneath the surface and quite a bit of humour. For good measure, there is the doctor in charge of the clinic, and possibly their fates, who is mentioned frequently but never appears.

Why is it called ‘Infinite Life’? I think, because the five women are so consumed by their pain that they live very much in the moment, unable to think of life beyond it.

I understand that you may prefer loud over quiet, fast over slow, witty comedy over gentle humour, but personally I loved the way every sentence of Annie Baker’s dialogue seems carefully constructed to work on two levels, and rewarded concentrated listening.

There’s the surface of apparently inconsequential talk about what they’re reading, their lists of diagnoses and failed treatments, their chat about sex. Then there are the implications of what they’re saying in the context of the pain they are feeling, as well as the hints of the lives they have led and will lead outside of this moment of suspended time.

Even Annie Baker’s trademark pauses and silences as the women gather their thoughts, or get lost in them, reinforce the disorientation caused by fasting. They also provide us the audience with moments of contemplation.

If you’re expecting their pain to be a metaphor for life, you’ll be disappointed. It is what it says on the tin. As one of the characters says: ‘If pain doesn’t mean anything, it’s so boring. But if it means anything at all then I don’t know if I can bear it.’ It is what it brings out in their characters that stands out.

It is certainly not as depressing as you might imagine. Most of the time, rather than feel sorry for them, you admire these women’s resilience, and the mutual respect inspired by their confinement together and common predicament. Their conversations are leavened with some very funny lines. I could have carried on listening to their conversations long beyond the one hour 45 minutes.

This is a joint National Theatre and Atlantic Theater Company production but the effort has been put in by the Americans. Thanks to an agreement between the British actors’ union and American Equity, the off-Broadway production has been transported set, creatives and cast. And what a cast we were privileged to see! Annie Baker has created five strong characters. Directed by James Macdonald, all the actors do a superlative job at subtly suggesting their suffering, their vulnerability, their fortitude and their inner life.

The women are mostly in their sixties or seventies. Marylouise Burke as Eileen, the oldest, shuffles slowly on and off stage, carefully laying out her cushions on her lounger, moving with delicate precision as if every movement hurts.

Mia Katigbak plays Yvette, precise and firm in her thoughts, and who reels off a tremendously long list of ailments, but also reveals her desperation for the fasting to be a cure. Brenda Pressley is Elaine, reserved and determined. As Ginnie, Kristine Nielsen has a twinkling eye and a playful manner.

Christina Kirk plays Sofi, at 47 the youngest of the cohort. She is tortured, and self torturing, at times blaming herself for her illness. You might think that chronic pain would push sex off the agenda. Far from it. While the older women muse on sex, she is still wracked by desire: forbidden lust that has jeopardised her marriage, the sex itself that is debilitatingly painful, the desperate belief that orgasms might be the cure. In the night, she leaves voice messages about her agony for her husband, and sexual fantasies for her platonic lover.

Incidentally, this was the second National Theatre production running I’ve seen (The House Of Bernarda Alba being the first), in which a woman has masturbated on stage. I’m hoping this isn’t now mandatory because the next show I’m seeing at the National is a family show, The Witches.

Sex crops up quite frequently as a subject for conversation. Someone wonders if bad sex is the cause of illness. On another occasion, there is an extended discussion after someone reveals that a cousin describes pornography for blind people. We always learn about their characters from what they say.

Some time into the play, a solitary man appears. Nelson is mature and attractive enough to make the women take notice. His character is much more thinly drawn than those of the women but Pete Simpson exhibits a believable arrogance. Unlike the others, he has a specifically identified and, it would seem, mortal disease. He seems to be introduced for two reasons. I’ll come to the other later but the first is to provide a contrast to the women’s camaraderie. ‘I don’t want to sound like a dick,’ he says, then proceeds to do just that.

He is the only character who contends that his agony is worse than that of the others. Sofi says to him: ‘You don’t actually know if your level of pain that night was worse than my level of pain on my worst night. It’s impossible to know.’ Until then, I hadn’t fully taken on board how, for the women, their suffering is not a competition. They realise that, like sex, everyone has their own unique, incomparable experience of suffering. And as an audience, we cannot make a judgment. They and we can only offer a gentle sympathy.

Privately it may be different. Eileen, who seems the calmest of all, has a moment alone on stage when she says: ‘This is the night you heard me screaming. I said terrible things …I said none of you have ever been in this much pain …I said it’s a conspiracy..I said …A minute of this is an infinity.’ Not something any of them would actually say out loud to one another: they keep their all-engulfing agony to themselves. 

When they’re not talking about sex or illness, the women often talk philosophically about what they have read, and again we can see how what interests them reflects on their own lives-  how did a similarly ill woman go about setting up a successful business; does an Asian pirate, brought up in a certain culture (for which, perhaps, read afflicted by sickness), have the free will to choose his actions or is he bound to act in a certain way?

Boring or entertaining or both?

Most significantly, Sofi is trying to read George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda. This is not a random choice by Annie Baker. When asked what it’s about, Sofi says that so far the book is concerned with Gwendoline and her suitors. Those familiar with the novel will know that Gwendoline is self-obsessed, contained in her own world, much as people in constant agony are.

She says: ‘If I’m not reading it all the time it seems really boring, but once I’m into it, it’s like the most entertaining thing in the world.’ Is Annie Baker giving a knowing wink to the audience about this play?

Sofi is finding it hard to get beyond page 152. The sentence she gets stuck at says irrational fear can stop you doing what you know is achievable. Something else to think about, and certainly relevant to the test Nelson provides for Sofi on whether she will act on her sexual desire.

Dusk follows day, night takes over, then another day in the blazing Californian sun begins. Lighting designer Isabella Byrd dims the lights into moonlight that actually feels cool, then slams on a sudden migraine-inducing flood of daylight. The women’s current lives may be an infinite loop as each day merges into the next but there is a finite time frame to the play. It begins with the first day of Sofi’s stay at the retreat and ends on the day she leaves.

Four women doze on sun loungers in the Atlantic Theater proudction of Infinite Life
Christina Kirk, Kristine Nielsen, Brenda Pressley and Mia Katigbak in Infinite Life. Photo: Marc Brenner

The set, from the New York design collective, dots, suggests the monotony of fasting. It is minimal and never changing. In front of a beige background, there’s a patterned breeze block wall of a similar colour, about two metres tall. In front of that there are a number of loungers. The cheap nature of the wall and beds implies that the so-called clinic is a new age sham designed to make money from desperate people who have been failed by medical science.

For the majority of the play, the women lie down as if their loungers are islands in an ocean of agony. They talk but they don’t make physical contact or delve deeply into each other’s lives. Then, as we reach the final minutes of the play, there is a moment between Sofi and Eileen, which does seem to take us forward.

They touch each other, both mentally and physically.  It’s a human connection that suggests we need not be alone in our pain. This seems to point to a way in which we can possibly learn from it. Perhaps by moving from the inward-facing world of Gwendoline to the outward-looking and more empathetic behaviour of Daniel Deronda himself.

Annie Baker is that rare class of writer who can create a funny, moving play about the human condition, without resorting to easy messages and emotional manipulation.

Infinite Life was performed at the Linda Gross Theater in New York from August 18 to October 15, 2023, and from 22 November 2023 to 13 January 2024 at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre.

Paul purchased his ticket.

Click here to watch the video of this review on the YouTube channel Theatre Reviews With Paul Seven


To Have And To Hold – Hampstead- review

Alun Armstrong stands out in new comedy

A scene from To Have And To Hold at Hampstead Theatre in November 2023
Marion Bailey, Chrtistopher Fulford and Alun Armstrong in To Have And To Hold. Photo: Marc Brenner

Richard Bean, writer of the incomparable One Man Two Guv’nors, has turned his attention to the challenges of old age in his new comedy To Have And To Hold. The focus is on the schism between working class parents and their educated middle class children. Something many of us have felt.

Yet despite the common experience and the pedigree of the writer, it lacks emotional impact. What it does offer are a lot of laughs and a superior comedy double act from Alun Armstrong and Marion Bailey.

Many of us baby boomers will be familiar with the situation To Have And To Hold describes. We were the first working class generation to go to university in large numbers, to aspire to middle class professions, and to leave our roots. Before finding ourselves with elderly parents in need of support.

I’m not saying younger generations won’t appreciate this play but I suspect it does not have the universality of some dramas about generational conflict.

Jack and Florence are on their last legs, literally in that they need a Stannah stairlift. This provides the first of many laughs, when Flo slowly descends to answer the front door. At the front door is their son Rob, who has come to try and sort out getting them into better accommodation. He is later joined by his sister Tina who has a particular interest in their health.

James Cotterill has designed a beautifully naturalistic living room that positively screams of old people who have lived there forever and haven’t changed anything in at least thirty years. The homely set also suggests, correctly, that we are nearer to the cosiness of a TV sitcom than the bleakness and remembrance of, say, Barney Norris’s Visitors, which covers similar ground.

Flo is getting by physically but she is showing signs of dementia. There is a running gag about her locking the front door and forgetting that she has the key in her apron. Jack is very ill but his brain is still sharp, so he can entertainingly recite lists of the names of pop stars and make barbed comments about being tied to Flo for seventy years.

And they bicker. They have a hilarious argument when she refers to the prostate as the prostrate and is unable to distinguish between the words. On another occasion, a convoluted question-and-answer bounces around like a pinball while which he tries to identify the name of a film director she can’t recall .

Flo has not yet lost the ability to launch some arrows of her own. When it is revealed that he has considered suicide and Switzerland is mentioned, she says she told him to go: ‘It’ll do you good. Broaden your horizons…you’ve never been abroad’. But there are many hints they are much closer than these exchanges would imply.

A comedy double act

Alun Armstrong and Marion Bailey are still in their seventies but are totally convincing as an elderly couple. Without them, the production would falter, because they are required to generate most of the laughs, and their timing is immaculate.

Christopher Fulford as Rob and Hermione Gulliford as Tina are fine actors but there is much less for them to get their teeth into. He is a successful crime writer, she an entrepreneur.  Both are geographically and culturally a long way from Yorkshire  and their parents. Their care seems more practical than emotional, their primary consideration seeming to be the price of everything.

Actors Marion Bailey and Alun Armstrong in a acene from the play To Have And To Hold at hampstead Theatre in November 2023
Marion Bailey and Alun Armstrong in To Have And To Hold. Photo: March Brenner

Jack recognises this and responds with a permanent scowl and his best grumpy Northerner mode- words like cantankerous and curmudgeonly spring to mind. It is significant that he is happy to tell stories of his time as a police officer but won’t let his son record them, because he suspects Rob only wants fodder for his novels. This also suggests that old people have lives worth remembering if only the next generation took the trouble to listen.

A neighbour Eddie and a cousin Pamela, nicely played by Adrian Hood and Rachel Dale, appear to offer more genuine support in a digital age that has passed Jack and Nancy by. They help with shopping from a supermarket that is more than a walk away, with banking that is only available online, and with health problems now that doctors don’t do home visits.

This leads to resentment and suspicion from the children. And, if that isn’t enough, there’s a subplot to do with someone conning Jack and Nancy out of their money.

It’s all very familiar, I’m sure, for many people of my generation. I myself know about living a life totally foreign to my parents. I have first hand experience of how difficult it is to care for parents when they are 200 miles away. I have seen my elderly father scammed out of thousands of pounds. I know how my mother-in-law’s doctor won’t do a home visit, even though she’s over 90.

So, I felt a lot of sympathy with all the main characters, but I never felt empathy, no real emotional involvement. This production is jointly directed by Richard Wilson and Terry Johnson. You couldn’t get two better people to extract the best out of a comedy. And it is a lot of fun, but Richard Bean never digs deep enough into the main characters’ feelings to bring out the pathos of a situation that so many people like Jack and Flo find themselves in.

To Have And To Hold is at Hampstead Theatre until 25 November 2023.
Paul was given a review ticket by the theatre.

Click here to watch this review on the YouTube channel Theatre Reviews With Paul Seven

Retrograde- review

Must-see new play by Ryan Calais Cameron with rising star Ivanno Jeremiah

★★★★★

Ivanno Jeremiah standing hands in pockets in the Kiln Theatre production of Retrograde by Ryan Calais Cameron
Ivanno Jeremiah in Retrograde. Photo: Marc Brenner

Retrograde, receiving its premiere at the Kiln Theatre in Kilburn London, is a tense, passionate play about racism and censorship, featuring a dynamite performance from rising star Ivanno Jeremiah. It is written by Ryan Calais Cameron, who recently achieved a West End hit with For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy. Thank goodness his new play has a shorter title!

Set in 1955, Retrograde describes Sidney Poitier’s early days in the film industry when he came up against racism and the so-called Hollywood blacklist which aimed to ‘cancel’, as we might say today, anyone with so-called anti-American views.

Sidney Poitier was a fabulous actor at a time when segregation was still legal and black performers were largely playing servants. We find him on the verge of getting a leading role. His experience could be that of anyone finds their career threatened because they want to exercise their right to free speech, or indeed anyone who has been asked to compromise their integrity for the sake of a job.

How, as an actor, do you play one of the greatest actors of all time, especially one with the added value of charisma? The challenge for Ivanno Jeremiah is made even greater because the play begins with a young writer Bobby and a long-established Hollywood lawyer Mr Parks discussing Sidney Poitier’s great qualities, thus building up the anticipation. Add to which, Mr Jeremiah looks nothing like Mr Poitier.
It doesn’t matter. He makes us believe he is Sidney Poitier. When he enters, there is the kind of still centre, the confidence, the relaxed style, the impeccable American English that he learnt to disguise his Caribbean accent, all of which were such a part of Poitier’s appeal. When he’s on the stage it’s hard to look anywhere else, excellent as the other two actors are. 
This is a play about the racist treatment he received, the torment of having to make a decision between his principles and fame and fortune in the film industry. As it becomes clear to Sidney that he isn’t there simply to sign a contract that recognises his talent, Mr Jeremiah’s startled eyes and slumping body portray confusion, nervousness, vulnerability, and even panic. It’s a monumental performance that marks Ivanno Jeremiah out as one of the great actors of his generation.
But even the greatest actors need words put in their mouths. Writer Ryan Calais Cameron has intentionally evoked those great scripts from the golden age of Hollywood. The play sparks with fast rhythmic exchanges, verbal dexterity and passion.
There is also a great deal of humour, lots of it bouncing around Mr Parks, although this tails off as the seriousness of the situation grows. When Bobby asks Mr Parks: ‘What do you think of me, be honest’, Parks replies: ‘I never think of you’. Here’s another Parksism: ‘If your phone doesn’t ring, it’s me.’ My favourite funny line was said about him: ‘Your ass must be pretty jealous of your mouth with all the shit that’s coming out if it.’
Mr Cameron builds the tension as if stretching a rubber band until you feel it must break.  If there is a fault in the play, it would only be that it is prolonged a little too much at the end, as we wait for Sidney’s decision, although this is redeemed by a couple of powerful polemic speeches from him.
There is also a conflict between the other characters, who represent two kinds of white people of that time- and probably modern times. Bobby is a writer and Sidney’s close friend. Played by Ian Bonar, he represents the white liberal who believes in equality and is anti-racism, but hasn’t himself been the victim of racism.  His early statement ‘I’d jump a bullet for that guy’ proves wanting when tested against threats from Daniel Lapaine’s frightening Mr Parks.
He’s there to oversee Sidney’s signing of the contract to play the lead role in Bobby’s TV movie. But he wants more. The studios, and as it turns out other powerful forces, want Sidney, as a tame black star. So he is required to sign an oath of loyalty to the United States and to denounce Paul Robeson, at that the highest profile black actor and an activist in anti-racism and pro-communism campaigns.
To give you some context, at this time many Americans were frightened of both communism and of the rise to power of black people. Hollywood had become the focus of these fears and many actors, writers and directors were blacklisted. This meant they were prevented from working, because they were communists, or simply insisted on their right not to talk.
And if it seems incredible to us today that this could happen in the USA, a country in which the first amendment to the constitution protects freedom of speech, and in which being a member of the communist party wasn’t actually illegal, I suppose we ought to ask how many people today, and maybe still black people in particular, are being careful about what they say for fear of offending the left or the right or some other powerful group and thereby not getting work in the creative industries. I may be wrong but I imagine the play is called Retrograde because Mr Cameron thinks we’re taking steps backward at the moment.
Mr Parks represents fascism, with its denial of facts, its bullying, its call to patriotism and its identification of those that disagree as enemies of the state. Mr Cameron makes little attempt at subtlety but that doesn’t stop Mr Parks’ words and his shark-like smile sending a chill down your spine.
Set depicting a 1950s office with three actors in Retrograde at the Kiln Theatre
Ivannop Jeremiah, Ian Bonar and Daniel Lapaine in Retrograde. Photo: Marc Brenner

Director Amit Sharma does a great job at maintaining the tension through what is one real-time 90-minute scene. I am guessing that Mr Sharma is responsible for the way clothes and furniture play an important part in the production. All three men wear hats, jackets and ties, as was the fashion then, although Sidney’s clothes are much brighter than the others’ plain suits. Early on, Mr Parks bullies Sidney into taking off his tie, thus establishing superiority over him, just as he forces whisky on him. At various points, the level of tenseness is reflected by hats and jackets being taken off or put on.

The set is a naturalistic, convincingly 1950s office, designed by Frankie Bradshaw, whose imaginative versality and eye for detail have been responsible for Blues For An Alabama Sky at the National, her award-winning Donmar and West End production of Sweat, and Kiss Me Kate in the cramped confines of The Watermill. The creation of two areas, one of comfortable chairs, the other a desk and more formal seats, allows for continuous movement around the stage. Placing the rectangular platform on which the set is built at an angle to the stage floor, adds to the taut situation.
To sum up: an unforgettable performance by Ivanno Jeremiah in an electrifying play by Ryan Calais Cameron. It thoroughly deserves a West End transfer.
Finally , a quick word about The Kiln. I’d never been there before, not even when it was called the Tricycle. It’s a theatre for the local community in Kilburn, and what a lucky community they are, because it has been the launch pad for many new plays, including, in its early days, Return To The Forbidden Planet, and more recently Moira Buffini’s Handbagged and Florian Zeller’s The Father.  You can easily get to it via the Jubilee tube line and it’s a welcoming, comfortable place to see a show.
Retrograde can be seen at the Kiln until 27 May  2023.
Paul paid for his ticket 

The Sex Party – Menier – Review

Terry Johnson’s new play about ‘Swingers’ is a mess

★★

Man and two women in conversation in a scene from the play The Sex Party
John Hopkins, Lisa Dwan and Molly Osborne in The Sex Party. Photo: Alistair Muir

It’s hard to describe how disappointed I was by my visit to the Menier Chocolate Factory to see The Sex Party. In the past, I have laughed at and thoroughly enjoyed plays by Terry Johnson, from Insignificance and Dead Funny to the recent Prism, but The Sex Party, both written and directed by Mr Johnson, turns out to be a very po-faced comedy.

There’s no sex and not much partying. But that’s not why I was disappointed. I fully expected Terry Johnson to be dissecting the party-goers rather than, metaphorically, taking off his undies and joining in. It had hints of the play it could been, one that used laughter to skewer middle-class liberal hypocrisy, and provoked thoughts about gender and sexuality. Instead, The Sex Party is so sensitive about doing and saying the right thing, all the light-heartedness has been sucked out of it.

At every turn, something else is thrown in to expose the limits of the apparent libertarianism of the people who are taking part in this orgy. So thick and fast do they come, that you hardly have time to consider the implications of one point, before we move on to the next one, until you wonder how much more will be loaded onto the ship before it sinks. Add to which, the play’s characters are just too lightweight to carry its heavyweight themes.

The play is entirely set in Tim Shortall’s naturalistic set which wonderfully recreates a kitchen in affluent Islington. Now, I know it’s not unusual for people at a party to gather in the kitchen, but there was meant to be an orgy taking place. That was through the door to the right. There was also a door to the left leading into the garden. A perfect set-up for a French farce, you might think. Think again. No, this is about what happens in the kitchen.

That’s where we meet all the couples. That’s where we learn about their relationships, and what happens when sexual permissiveness puts those relationships to the test. And that’s not the only trial these party-goers face.

 man and two women in conversation in a scene from the play The Sex Party at The Menier Theatre
Molly Osborne, Jason Merrells & Lisa Dwan in The Sex Party. Photo: Alistair Muir

So, couples start to arrive. The host Alex is friendly and organised but somewhat world-weary and dissatisfied- and reluctant to leave the kitchen. Jason Merrells is very good at portraying that point when a mature man is going from craggy to seedy. His much younger partner Hetty, played by Molly Osborne, is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and looking forward to lots of sex with lots of men. Jake and Gilly, played by John Hopkins and Lisa Dwan, are first timers and are there to watch and maybe have sex with each other, but not with anybody else. However, it seems Gilly is keener to experiment than uptight Jake, but she needs a lot of alcohol, as do most of the characters.

In an interview with Terry Johnson in the programme, he talks of the need to get a big laugh in early, so the audience knows it’s a ‘laughing audience’. The play succeeds in that respect when Gilly says that her safe words during sex are ‘Don’t stop’.

Other couples- and more very good actors- follow. Jeff is played by the great Timothy Hutton. What a coup to get this Oscar-winning film actor and splendid stage performer to make his London debut in this play. His character is , and Mr Hutton is magnificent in the role of a rich, right-wing American. He and his plain talking Russian wife Magdalena, played with a heavy accent by Amanda Ryan, are both experienced partygoers. The insults this couple throw at each other certainly liven up the evening, but then, insulting each other turns out to be par for the course for all the guests.

The final couple are Tim, high on drugs, and Camilla, an uptight radical feminist, played by Boris Johnson lookalike Will Barton and Kelly Price. I don’t think we ever find out what they have in common, except perhaps that he likes to be dominated and she likes to have the keys to the cage.

So, they’re there to take part in an orgy. But we’re not. It’s clear we’re not here to be titillated, nor to exploit these actors. There’s no sex going on in the kitchen: a little bit of kissing, but no other physical contact. And, whatever might be going on elsewhere, there’s no nudity. The women do wear lingerie, and two of the men bare their chests, but that’s the extent of it. This is a serious comedy.

A major problem with this play is that, with the possible exception of the host Alex, all these characters are caricatures. They all seem like they’re from a 1960s bedroom farce.  I suspect this is a deliberate ploy by Terry Johnson, so that our expectations can be eventually confounded. The difficulty is, when it seems like they’re only there for the laughs, it is extremely hard to believe in them, or their situations.

Act One seems to go round in circles, arriving again and again at the same question of will they, won’t they do whatever it is they are arguing about doing, or not doing.

An aggressive man is held back in a confrontation with a trans woman in a scene from the play The Sex Party
John Hopkins, Timothy Hutton, Kelly Price & Pooya Mohseni in The Sex Party. Photo: Alistair Muir

Then at the end of act one, the arrival of Lucy, a single person, changes everything, because Lucy is a trans woman. And to the great credit of the production, she is played by a trans woman Pooya Mohseni, who is an excellent actor and brings elegance and sensitivity to the role. So act two resumes with the gang cross-examining Lucy but soon the situation is reversed as the play explores the attitude of these heterosexual cis men and women’s toward sex with a trans woman. The limits of their liberal views are severely tested.

In that interview I mentioned, Mr Johnson says: ‘ Everyone is very careful now. I was full of resentment about it before I took this play on. But I’ve had to adjust to a whole new vocabulary and attitudes.’ Well, he certainly has. The play feels sanitised. Even innuendoes are given short shrift. I understand that many sexual jokes that once had people rolling in the aisles may now be considered offensive, but good comedy is grounded in the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. I find it hard to believe that a largely middle-aged and often nervous set of people at a sex party wouldn’t have made the occasional double-entendre. Still, perhaps we should be thankful that we were spared the ‘thank you for coming’, ‘thank you for having me’ kind of humour.

I think The Sex Party could have worked well as a play, if it had been less concerned about causing offence, and if it hadn’t tried to shoehorn every gender and sexuality issue you can think of into its two-and-a-bit hours. I’m exaggerating, of course, but here are a few examples: a reference to trans women competing in women’s sport events is lobbed in and batted out within seconds; there’s an interesting but fleeting moment when it’s suggested that although the women appear to be enjoying the freedom of choosing their lovers, the men may still be calling the shots; someone reads out a list of the many genders we can identify with in our modern world that is so tedious, the play loses all momentum. By the time two more serious incidents occurred, instead of taking in the implications of them, I was wondering how much more would be stacked on and taken away from this Jenga of a play.

It also ties itself in knots. There’s a moment in the first act, a kind of precursor to the transgender debate of the second act, when it’s pointed out there are no black people at the party. I thought this could have been explored further but the play moved on, leaving me, at least, to ponder the irony that there are no black actors in the cast.

Every so often there were noises off in the form of loud bangs. I know it was probably a loose door but I couldn’t help wondering if it was the sound of so many half-baked ideas clunking to the floor.

The Sex Party can be seen at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 7 Jnuary 2023

Click here to watch this review on our YouTube channel Theatre Reviews With Paul Seven

 

 

Marvellous @sohoplace – review

★★★

Michael Hugo and Suzxanne Ahmet Marvellous @sohoplace
Michael Hugo and Suzanne Ahmet in Marvellous

Marvellous, the opening production at the West End’s newest theatre @sohospace, is the story of Neil Baldwin. You may have seen the award winning BBC film of the same name. In which case, you will know about Neil, a man with a learning disability, who, thanks to his sheer determination and happy disposition, became an honorary graduate of Keele University, a clown in a circus, and kit man and mascot for Stoke City football club, as well many other honours including a British Empire Medal.

His story is uplifting, and this play, which originated at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme does him justice. It not only recounts the major events of his life, it does so in a way that reflects the anarchic approach of Neil himself.

Thanks largely to his mother, Neil has never accepted any limitations because of his disability. He simply goes and asks, or sometimes goes without asking. accordingly, he applies to be the manager of Stoke City. He doesn’t get that job but he persists and is taken on by the appointed manager Lou Macari as someone who can and does boost morale.

Similarly he rolls up at Keele University where his mother works and starts welcoming students. He is never formally employed there but he is elected a life member of the students union and 50 years later is celebrated with an honorary degree.

Despite his confidence, there are moments when his disability is a cause for discrimination. He is unpaid and treated badly by the circus owner. But, when he’s bullied at school or later at work, he takes it in his stride and gets his own back with a practical joke.

This is a form of theatre that steps outside the restrictions of a formal stage play and makes the audience and the creation of the drama part of the show. So, from the start, the actors gather to construct a play about Neil Baldwin and within minutes Neil, or an actor playing the part of ‘Real Neil’, appears from the audience and becomes an active participant in its creation. This is interesting because Neil himself was involved in the making of this play. And, as we find out at the end, the real Real Neil is actually present, sitting in the Stalls.

The cast of Marvellous on stage at @sohoplace theatre November 2022
Marvellous @sohoplace Photo: Craig Sugden

So he- the character Real Neil- is consulted and increasingly shapes the play that is apparently being created before our eyes. Planned scenes are scrapped, new interpretations introduced. In keeping with his nature, Neil is determined that there should be no serious stuff, keep it happy is his motto.

Nearly all the actors are called upon at one stage or another to play Neil, indicating perhaps his many roles in life. By the second act, Real Neil is playing himself. And what a superb actor Michael Hugo is. He mimics Neil’s characteristicly slow speech, and offers us recognisable twinkling eyes and mischievous grin.

The other actors are also very talented and play a multitude of characters. Alex Frost, Gareth Cassidy, Daniel Murphy and Shelley Atkinson (who was standing in for Charlie Bence), kept us amused with their multitude of accents and their physical comedy. Jerone Marsh-Reid is a brilliant clown and has a breathtaking ability to fall crashing to the ground. Suzanne Ahmet is a commanding presence as Neil’s mother.

The play is packed with displays of stage skills. The slo-mo replays of football tackles are hilarious. Neil has a Mary Poppins-style bag from which most of the props appear (thanks to much activity understage). There are copious custard pies and other forms of slosh including spraying the audience with water and foam. In fact, audience participation is de rigour.

The problem with this show is, the longer it goes on, a play which is at first quick-witted and fast-moving, begins to try too hard to get laughs. It’s as if director Theresa Heskins, who also gets a co-writing credit with Malcolm Clark and of course Neil Baldwin, is throwing in everything but the kitchen sink (well actually there is a kitchen sink of sorts). I was almost expecting a pantomime dame to appear. And in addition to the forced fun, it becomes, by the end, overly sentimental. All of which meant I was less involved than perhaps I should have been.

Behind the comedy, there are some serious points about disability discrimination but also that disability need not be a barrier to achieving your dreams. Of course, in the play, and in the spirit of Neil Baldwin, that would be a cue for another custard pie, because above all else Marvellous is a happy show about a happy man. If you’re looking for a fun night out, it’s certainly worth a visit.

Marvellous can be seen @sohoplace until 26 November 2022.

Read the review of @sohoplace here

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Douglas Henshall in Mary – Hampstead – review

★★★★★

Douglas henshall and Brian Verney in Mary at Hampstead Theatre November 2022
Douglas Henshall and Brian Vernel in Mary. Photo: Manuel Harlan

This thrilling drama is about the men who surrounded her, exploited her and decided her fate. One is Sir James Melville, a real historical figure, who is the central character of this play. Inspired by a muscular, vigorous script, Douglas Henshall, of Shetland fame, gives a towering performance as an apparently good man, who gave her his support, but ultimately has both his conscience and his loyalty tested.

Mary is part of a series of plays that Rona Munro is writing about the Scottish Stewart monarchy before it amalgamated with the English crown (when James VI of Scotland became James I of England).Unlike the Shakespeare history style of the so-called James Plays, Mary is essentially a three hander but- and this says a lot- Mary Queen Of Scots isn’t one of those three. In fact she hardly makes an appearance.

Yet by the end, you understand a great deal about Mary annd about the position of women in 16th century society, even a queen. When I say 16th century, the script says it’s set in 1581 ‘but it could be any time’. You may not see much of Mary but by the end I think you will feel very sorry for her and shocked by how she was treated.

Ashley Martin-Davis’s set creates the mood perfectly. The back of the stage is filled with wood panelling, the doors invisible until they open. So, it’s very claustrophobic but also quite neutral in terms of the era. Matt Haskins’ lighting design suggests the sun feebly penetraying the darkness of the castle.

The costumes are also not pinned to the 16th century and, in their simplicity, could easily be worn today. In fact, I’m pretty sure I saw Jimmy Perez wearing something similar. The language is contemporary, not cod Shakespearean. All reinforce the idea that what happened to Mary as a woman could happen today, even to a powerful woman.

We begin with John Thompson, lying bloodied on the ground. He’s been beaten up by the powerful but nasty Bothwell. Sir James enters. He has known and served the Queen since her childhood.He’s an authoritative figure, knows his way around court, is confident he can see problems and solve them. He wants to get Thompson cleaned up because he doesn’t want the Queen to see the blood, since that will upset her. From this, we see he is patronisingly protective. He tries to persuade Thompson to help the Queen escape the castle and the clutches of Bothwell- someone else we never meet.

Thompson is ambitious and wants to be sure he chooses the right side. Brian Vernel is a great choice for the part.  In the course of the play, we see this weasel of a man change from subservient to dominant without ever losing the sense of his cowardly pragmatism.

Also in the room is a servant, Agnes, played by Rona Morison with an appropriate fire in her belly. Like Thompson, she is a made-up character. It may need a stretch of the imagination to think she could get away with speaking so forthrightly to these men- both of them do express their frustration with her- but she is important to the play, both to show the power and fanaticism of the Protestant faith at that time and therefore the suspicion of the catholic Mary, but also because she gives a woman’s perspective on this man’s world.

In the second act, everything has changed. The Queen is on the verge of being overthrown, Thompson is on the rise, and Melville is adrift and less powerful. The conversation between the two, with interventions from Agnes, is thrilling, as Thompson tries to persuade him to stand against the Queen by wheedling and questioning like a prosecution lawyer. Melville’s previously professed love of the Queen is tested and his defence of his actions becomes increasingly shaky. Did he really love her or was it the power of her he loved? Did he use her or try to use her just as much as the other powerful men around her?

Douglas Henshall, Brian Verney and in Mary at Hampstead Theatre November 2022
Douglas Henshall, Brian Vernel and Rona Morison. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Douglas Henshall is phenomenally good in this role. If you’ve watched him in Shetland on TV, you’ll know how his portrayal of detective Jimmy Perez lifted the series from the ordinary to something special. Here, as his character struggles to keep his belief in himself, tries in vain to assert his authority, faces a most difficult challenge to his conscience, Douglas Henshall’s performance, moving from confident to hectoring to desperate, is a tour de force.

It’s a triumph too for Roxana Silbert, Hampstead Theatre’s Artistic Director, who directs this tight, tense production.

Keeping Mary off the stage is a masterstroke by Rona Munro because this play is about how powerful men use her to their own ends. So she becomes a blank sheet of paper and what we learn about her is entirely what is written on it by the men, and at the end by Agnes. And what we learn is that she was badly advised, including by Melville, was given no choice but to make bad decisions, and in a shocking revelation which I won’t spoil, was physically powerless against their violence.

It is possible that Rona Munro also intends the Queen to be a metaphor for Scotland the country and the way politicians and landowners have treated it.

I would love to think that things have changed in 400 years, and perhaps they have in terms of women standing up for themselves and each other (and plenty of men supporting them). However there are still many men, some powerful, who continue every day to use and abuse women.

This powerful play is far more than a lesson in history.

Mary is running at Hampstead Theatre until 26 November 2022.

Paul was given a press ticket by the theatre.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Paul Bettany & Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration – Young Vic – review

Paul Bettany & Jeremy Pope light up this fascinating play

★★★★

Production photo of Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany in The Collaboration at Young Vic theatre in London 2022
Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany in The Collaboration. Photo: Marc Brenner

The Collaboration at The Young Vic is a special occasion. The two stars are Paul Bettany – Vision no less from the Marvel Universe, and the very unpleasant Duke of Argyll in A Very British Scandal – and Hollywood rising star Jeremy Pope.

The play is written by Anthony MacCarten, best known for his screenplays The Theory Of Everything, The Two Popes and Bohemian Rhapsody.

It’s about two of the great American artists of the late 20th century- Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat– who worked together on a number of paintings. As you enter the Young Vic, you see scattered examples of their work scattered throughout the building.

When you walk into the auditorium, before the play even begins, there are flashing lights and the loud beat of a DJ – Xana – live mixing music and videos from 1980s New York project onto the set. There’s more. The director is Kwame Kwei-Armah, your actual artistic director of the Young Vic. And for good measure, the set is designed by  Anna Fleischle, who triumphed just last week with The Forest at Hampstead Theatre, one of a long line of amazing productions, and now conjures up the two artists’ studios, both versions of the same white-painted brick walls, skylights and paint splattered floor, but each quite different in the details that represent the artists’ very different personalities. It is, as I said, an occasion.

In real life, when Warhol and Basquiat collaborated, the critics’ response was lukewarm, so was this collaboration of theatrical talent a similar damp squib? Quite the opposite. It’s an explosion of heat and light.

Production photo of Paul Bettany in The Collaboration at the Young Vic theatre in London 2022
Paul Bettany in The Collaboration. Photo: Marc Brenner

You can see why a play about this famous collaboration seemed like a good idea. You couldn’t get more different people. Warhol the established king of Pop Art, and Basquiat the young pretender whose neo-expressionist work went from street art to multi-million dollar sales at auction. Warhol old and in decline, Basquiat young and on the rise. Warhol the reserved germophobe who hid his heart, Basquiat, messy, prolific, spontaneous and wearing his heart on his sleeve.

They are The Odd Couple, as portrayed in the film of that name, or they could be a comedy duo like Morecambe and Wise, one that depends on a straight man and an anarchist. The conflict is the grit that creates this pearl of a story.

And what a great story. There are comparisons to be made with John Logan’s superb play Red which also features conversations about art, in that case between Mark Rothko and his young, critical assistant. Here, though, the two protagonists are shown as equals. Initially, they hate each other’s work. “So ugly’ says Warhol. ‘Old hat’ says Basquiat. So not exactly Elton John and Dua Lipa.

Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope totally inhabit their roles

Then they meet and in the first act they explore one another’s ideas of art. Warhol sees himself as taking out the feeling by repetitive reproduction so that surface becomes all that matters, deliberately turning art into a commodity. ‘Trash. Trash. But we have to celebrate something’ says Warhol, (he might possibly have said that in the second act, I’m not sure). Basquiat passionately believes that art means something and can be an instrument for change. ‘Art disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed’ he says. In this play of natural conversation, even the aphorisms sound spontaneous. There are times in the first act when you may wonder, interesting and enjoyable as the conversation is, whether it’s getting anywhere.

The second act dispels all doubt. It takes place when they have been working together for a couple of years, and starts with a splendid moment when Warhol unhappy with the standard of cleaning in Basquiat’s studio starts vacuuming. The two have got to know one another well and, while they remain very different artists, they have come to feel a kind of love for each other. And it’s heartwarming in this current era of echo chambers and cancel culture, to see two people with very different views, not shutting each other out, but listening, and talking, and eventually respecting one another.

The intimacy the artists now have means that we find out a lot more about their inner selves: Warhol opens up emotionally in ways you would never have imagined, and we learn about Basquiat’s demons too. In some ways, the collaboration has reinvigorated Warhol. There’s a wonderful moment in the first act when he first picks up a brush for the first time in 25 years and seems to marvel at its feel in his hand. He has become a kind of father figure to Basquiat who seems to be on a downward spiral of paranoia and drug addiction.

This all works so well, partly because of the strength of the dialogue, partly because of the way director Kwame Kwei-Armah drives the play towards a dramatic climax. Most of all it’s because of the acting. Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope totally inhabit the roles of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Mr Bettany looks the part with his gangly body, his nervous tics and his pale skin and white wig. When he talks with Warhol’s superficial ‘gosh, gee’ way of speaking, his controlled body language conveys that this is a way of hiding his true self, just as he hides behind a camera.

Mr Pope with hair like a crown of thorns is all bouncy and Tigger-like then suddenly switches to anger, both moods concealing a pain that can be seen in the way he physically slumps or has a watery look in his eyes.

These two outstanding performances turn this theatrical collaboration into a momentous occasion.

The Collaboration can be seen at the Young Vic until 2 April 2022.

Click here to watch this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel