The Confessions (Lyttelton, National Theatre)
Verdict: Wizard from Oz
Cowbois (Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon)
Verdict: The mild bunch
What a poignant and arresting new play they’ve brought into the National Theatre. The Confessions is a fanfare for the common woman, by the Paris-based British writer and director Alexander Zeldin. It is based on his mother’s account of her life, starting in Australia and ending in London.
She is played here as an ordinary woman, Alice, growing up in post-war suburbia. She flunks university, marries sweet but dull Graham to please her parents, falls in with a set of seemingly free-thinking bohemians, returns to university to study art history, is assaulted by a lecturer, moves to Florence and then winds up alone in London where she meets a bashful Holocaust survivor, Jacob, in the British Library.
In some ways the everyday epic is a very conventional view of the post-war period, charting sexual revolution and counter-revolution.
But it’s also a kooky, tender and sometimes alarming account of casual cruelty and love. Zeldin shows life as a higgledy-piggledy ramble of dead ends and twists. It is also moving in its moments of separation and loss — particularly a scene with Alice’s mother, and another where the older Alice forces her attacker to strip off with her after the assault.
Most striking, though, is the acting. Zeldin’s staging features a sadder, older Alice (Amelda Brown) and a younger, tenacious version (Eryn Jean Norvill) often on stage at the same time, quietly taking stock of their life.
The Confessions is a fanfare for the common woman, by the Paris-based British writer and director Alexander Zeldin
Other sharply drawn characters include Alice’s misguided but well-meaning parents, her timid husband, the brash bohemian set (including a Germaine Greer-like rad fem) who seem to promise liberation, and fellow lost soul, Jacob (Brian Lipson), who had given up hope of finding love.
There’s a refreshing directness about the acting, with the cast doubling up in multiple roles and involving the audience by using auditorium entrances and sometimes addressing us directly.
We are steeped in Alice’s life, but we’re also kept aware of the show’s artifice, with Zeldin exposing the stage machinery and actors glimpsed back stage like ghosts.
All this makes the action feel like fleeting memories — present, yet out of reach. It’s quietly touching and hugely life-affirming.
Meanwhile, at the RSC, you can see a Disney-brained confection about non-binary cowboys (hence the misspelt title). Charlie Josephine’s deliberately anachronistic comedy is set in a small town in the Midwest that’s lost most of its menfolk to the gold rush. Most, but not all.
Still at large is America’s most wanted man, the outlaw Jack Cannon (Vinnie Heaven), who in his Elvis get-up is all things to all gender dissidents: activist, doctor, outlaw, rock star, fashion stylist and self-sacrificing Christ figure.
Meanwhile, at the RSC, you can see a Disney-brained confection about non-binary cowboys (hence the misspelt title)
Charlie Josephine’s deliberately anachronistic comedy is set in a small town in the Midwest that’s lost most of its menfolk to the gold rush
Why the action fuses the 19th and 21st centuries is anyone’s guess. Perhaps to make it impenetrable to reason. Or perhaps to secure a setting where there are people who’ll disagree with the characters’ demands to be free to choose who they love and how they dress.
In modern Britain these rights are guaranteed by law. Even so, there isn’t a cowboy accent to be had and it’s spoken in tuneless modern street idioms.
In the absence of drama, Josephine and Sean Holmes’s near three-hour production turns to the odd country and western song, and half-cooked hoedown.
Obviously Heaven’s Jack is no John Wayne, but he could still use a little more stage charisma.
And as Jack’s tragically straight, beloved barmaid, Sophie Melville is a powerhouse actor who’s wasted in a role that’s all but silent in the second half.
Paul Hunter lays on some classy clowning as the drunken sheriff, but with the sort of shoot-out at the end that I used enjoy when playing cowboys and Indians at the age of six (only here with deafening pistols), it’s a production that’s simply too pleased with itself to require an audience.
Need a second chance? Try the sarnie of salvation
BY GEORGINA BROWN
Clyde’s (Donmar Warehouse)
Verdict: Comfort food
Elephant (Bush Theatre, London)
Verdict: Powerful vibrations
At one delicious level, Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s is a eulogy to the humble sandwich, variously described here as ‘a complete meal you can hold between your fingers’, ‘a democratic meal’, a perfect balance of ingredients which can recreate a memory or a desire. A great sandwich can even say: ‘I love you.’
Everyone who works in Clyde’s, a rundown truck-stop cafe in rust-belt Philadelphia, has done time. Including the owner, Clyde. But far from being a Sir John Timpson-style philanthropist dedicated to giving ex-cons a second chance, Gbemisola Ikumelo’s Clyde is a cleaver-wielding dragon: a kick-ass dominatrix in leather trousers and snakeskin stiletto boots, screeching at her staff of ‘nobodies’ and ‘morons’ that she ‘don’t do pity’.
There’s nothing mouth-watering about the lump of processed cajun chicken, sprinkled with peppers, iceberg lettuce and mayo, then squashed between wedges of white Wonderloaf, that they frantically throw together in this purgatorial kitchen.
Everyone who works in Clyde’s, a rundown truck-stop cafe in rust-belt Philadelphia, has done time
But occasionally, when there’s a lull, kitchen manager Montrellous (Giles Terera) whips up a fantasy sandwich: lobster on a toasted potato roll, with roasted garlic and truffle mayo. In a few spellbinding seconds, he conjures a world of infinite possibilities, worth salivating over.
Nottage’s award-winning play, Sweat, exposed the devastating unemployment, anger and despair that was the consequence of de-industrialisation in modern America.
Clyde’s continues those themes but also dares to suggest there is an escape — real redemption — through friendships, through working ‘thoughtfully’ and finding that magic ingredient which makes all the difference, in a sandwich and in life itself.
For there is little action in this fizzing, funny play but for the development of superbly drawn characters, each haunted by their crimes, tentatively opening up, revealing themselves, learning to trust and even to love.
There is no better acting to be seen in London than in Lynette Linton’s stunning production.
Ronke Adekoluejo’s Tish, who stole medication for her daughter’s seizures, ‘got greedy’, nicked Oxy and got caught, sparks and flickers as if running on electricity. By contrast, Terera’s saintly Monty remains a quietly mesmerising mystery until almost the end.
Whoever imagined a sandwich of salvation?
In Anoushka Lucas’s high-charged monologue, sliding in and out of song, the elephant in the room is Lylah’s piano.
Its notes are made of ivory wrenched from the soft jaws of murdered elephants, carried by enslaved people across colonised countries, transported in ships made of mahogany from forests on Caribbean islands, cleared and turned into plantations by African hands. Not something many have considered. You will now.
When she was seven, the window of Lylah’s parents’ council flat (in a tiny terrace in Hammersmith) had to be removed to get the piano into the living room — where her parents slept.
At the posh school Lylah attends on a huge bursary from the French government, sorted by her French-Cameroon mother, where she is teachers’ pet because she is ‘special’, clever, compliant, she learns lots of words for living-room (sitting-room, drawing-room) but none for one which is also a bedroom.
In Anoushka Lucas’s high-charged monologue, sliding in and out of song, the elephant in the room is Lylah’s piano
Lylah’s Anglo-Indian dad says she gets her freckles from her redheaded Dorset grandfather. A schoolmate says her skin is brown because she hasn’t a bathroom. Her black cousins think she talks weird.
Under Jess Edwards’s expert direction, Lucas tells Lylah’s story, sitting at the piano, sprawling over it or standing high upon it, as the turntable stage slowly revolves and she boldly challenges the gaze of the audience.
Welcomed as ‘exotic’ in a white, well-behaved, middle-class world, she thought she was exactly the same as the others, playing the piano, going to Oxford. Until she decides to become a recording artist and agents want to cut her up into marketable parts, ‘like a tusk’, toning down her posh accent and emphasising her working-class, black and Asian bits because ‘nobody here knows how to market a middle-class brown person’.
Lylah explodes in a heartfelt, furious outburst in which she recognises the history she shares with her piano: ‘a beautiful object, made out of a dead ****ing elephant’.
A potent, painful drama about white-washing, exquisitely executed.
Puccini’s endangered Swallow soars again
BY TULLY POTTER
La Rondine (Leeds Grand Theatre)
Verdict: An enjoyable production, well executed
In setting out to write a Viennese-style light opera, Giacomo Puccini was going outside his usual remit, and La Rondine (‘the swallow’) has become the endangered bird among his mature works.
The Great War scuppered his scheme to present it in Vienna, but the original intention remains in the waltz rhythms and some light-hearted scenes. The one hit number is Che il bel sogno di Doretta, beautifully sung here by Galina Averina as Magda, and the final passionate duet comes almost too late to affect us.
Echoes of La Traviata, though not so tragic, are inescapable and French tenor Sebastien Gueze is thoroughly convincing as Ruggero, who falls for Magda’s slightly shopworn charms; he and Averina provide some splendid, memorable singing.
The one hit number is Che il bel sogno di Doretta, beautifully sung here by Galina Averina as Magda (pictured), and the final passionate duet comes almost too late to affect us
Although this is one of Opera North’s ‘green’ stagings — meaning scenery and so on from previous productions has been re-used — there is certainly no feeling of cheapness
As in Die Fledermaus, we get a secondary tenor-soprano pairing and Elgan Llyr Thomas and Claire Lees are ideally cast as the poet Prunier and Magda’s flighty maid Lisette. Philip Smith is suitably stuffy as Magda’s ‘protector’, Rambaldo.
Subsidiary characters are excellently acted and sung, and even the dancing is good, so at every point the best possible case is made for the piece.
Although this is one of Opera North’s ‘green’ stagings — meaning scenery and so on from previous productions has been re-used — there is certainly no feeling of cheapness.
Set designer Leslie Travers has worked wonders, as has his costume counterpart Gabrielle Dalton, and director James Hurley marshals all his on-stage forces at the Leeds Grand Theatre with assurance.
Conductor Kerem Hasan seems to comprehend the tricky style of La Rondine well, so it does not fall down the cracks between opera and operetta, and he handles both orchestra and chorus sympathetically.
I wish I could write that La Rondine is a masterpiece. It is not. But in this wholehearted presentation, it deserves to gain many new fans.
La Rondine will have a short tour after Leeds. For dates and venues visit operanorth.co.uk