Posts Tagged ‘Jermyn Street Theater’

Review – The Play About My Dad – Jermyn Street Theater

July 10, 2018

With daily headlines about the youth sports team trapped in a cave in Thailand, Monday night seemed perfect timing to be watching a play about the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina on the lives of residents of Missippi. Spun out amongst three groups of people as the moment of crisis approached and the tension ratcheted, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Floyd Collins, the musical about the man trapped in a cave in 1930s Kentucky. Would htey live? Would they die? The four families Boo Killebrew chose to show us were unknowns, all potential members of the class of 1836 people killed in this murderous storm. It made for riveting viewing. Who would make it out alive?

Killebrew chose an intriguing framing device, of putting herself and her father Larry (David Shaal) as characters in the play, so that she could write about the process of writing and creating in a meta-theatrical way, as well as exploring their relationship. Larry the character is thus able to speak about what Larry Killebrew saw, as a doctor at a hospital, and about his relationship with Boo (Hannah Britland) and about the writing process in general. Killebrew then adds some people she knew less well as characters (specifically Kenny Tyson – Ammar Duffus – an ambulance driver, and Essie Watson – Miquel Brown – Dad Killebrew’s babysitter from way back when), and then four other people, a family and another EMT, to round out the stories. But Killebrew herself was not there, which is a bit of a shame. That said, I was torn between finding the use of her insertion of herself as playwright into the narrative irritating, as it introduced a lot of superfluous dialogue, and finding it fascinating, because, well, I too write plays, and I found the discussions of her technique very, very interesting – so interesting it distracted me from the actual narratives she had created.

Still, it was the topic of Hurricane Katrina that drew me to this show. I don’t often get to see plays about recent American history – that is, anything less than a hundred years old – so this attempt to wade into the muck of this shameful catastrophe was square center in my mind’s eye. How would a play about Katrina spin out? How much focus would we get on the woeful response of people on the ground? How much on the disproportionate effect of the hurricane on the black and elderly? Would we look at the policemen that refused to let black citizens drive out of New Orleans? Would we look at the causes of the disaster?

In short, no, we did not. We heard three tales of people who mostly fatally affected by the storm. We struggled with them as they attempted to deal with the fact the waters were rising so high that they were likely to wind up drowned; we wondered why they did not leave when the danger of staying was clear. And side by side with their stories we hear the story of Boo Killebrew struggling with her father leaving his family (Boo and her mom), and the fear she felt when their car ran out of gas during a storm, and a little bit about what was happening and Larry Killebrew’s hospital during and after the storm.

But some very big questions aren’t answered. And, for me very oddly in a play set in the South, we have no discussion or examination of racial interactions, and, rather worse I think, no examination of the impact of poverty on people’s outcomes. So many people who couldn’t swim; so many people who couldn’t drive away; so many people that weren’t able to keep up their houses; so many people afraid of what missing three days of work would do to them. And alongside it we have two well to do white people whose concerns during the storm were buying a dress and getting phone service again. In the end, it felt like there were two entirely different stories being told – one about Hurricane Katrina, and one about a father/daughter relationship – but by blending them together, Killebrew makes it look like she is exploiting other people’s suffering without really understanding it, and trying to equate her emotional experience with people actually dying. The net effect is to pollute both stories. The people who die are just backdrop to a family drama, but in fact theirs is the real drama. There are some good threads going here and some good roles for non-white actors – a pleasure to see in London to be sure – but it would be better to see this done as “The Play About Katrina” and “The Play About My Dad,” so the issues in each play could be focused on appropriately without one trivializing the other. The story of Kenny Tyson dealing with his mother’s loss and being able to see the past and the future is interesting enough to carry its own play; I’d love to see him, and the other working class and poor people of The Play About My Dad, brought front and center with their own play. Still, it was nice to see recent, and important, US history put on stage, and brilliant to get to see the people from the South shown as just typical folks holding down jobs and looking after their families. I look forward to seeing how Killebrew’s work develops as she matures.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, July 9, 2018. It continues through July 21st.)

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Review – Pride and Prejudice – Two Bits Classics at Jermyn Street Theater

December 4, 2016

The thought of two people acting all of Pride and Prejudice seems farcical at the outset, more so when I realized that it was to be a man and a woman. I mean, just look at Elizabeth Bennet’s family! She’s one of five daughters, and in her whole household there is only one man AND SIX WOMEN! And, frankly, Mr Darcy isn’t around nearly enough to justify an entire man in the cast – at least two thirds of the characters are female! But there I was, at Jermyn Street, waiting to see what had been created and, honestly, hoping for the best.

Fortunately, while Joannah Tincey and Nick Underwood do stick to playing the two leads, Elizabeth and Darcy (and in the appropriate gender), the choice of genders for the various other parts is surprisingly more varied than I expected. Mr and Mrs Bennet are as expected – Underwood with a pipe and Tincey rather frequently twirling a hanky (and talking in a very comic accent) – but there is quite a bit of variety into the casting otherwise, rather sensibly as the various characters tend to appear in pairs, Darcy himself being frequently seen with Mr Bingley, and the youngest Bennet sisters being somewhat attached at the hip. There is no doubt that Mr Underwood is extraordinarily flexible with his portrayal of the female roles. And, to my surprise, so is Ms Tincey as a man (whipping aside her skirt to show trousers). You cannot help but be somewhat astounded at what a rich job they have done at making these many characters come to life, with only the tiny bit of waffling (the middle sister who only ever gets to be a music stand; an occasional chair that is supposed to be occupied).

Nick Underwood and Joannah Tincey - photo courtesy Carrie Johnson

Jane Bennet (left) and Caroline Bingley (with fan) – Nick Underwood and Joannah Tincey – photo courtesy Carrie Johnson


So we’ve established that there’s much of a to-do with the actors popping on hats, picking up pipes, or carefully arranging a sash to give a military air. Despite this, the production as a whole has a feeling of carefully controlled simplicity, with only picture rails, a half-window, some boxes and a fireplace serving to recreate one after another interior scene (of people in widely varying circumstances) and, indeed, even the outdoors (as Elizabeth takes her many walks). All of the richness is provided by the glorious words of Jane Austen and the highly memorable characters she created, who quickly became who I saw on stage as the scene required – the brash and stupid Lydia, grasping and shallow Mrs Bennet, formal and gentle Jane. What an accomplishment! And what a very good evening at the theater – it was a longish show but time positively raced by. Like the works of Jane Austen, this feels like a play one could see again and again – a classic performed with bravura and so, so much comedy. It’s delicious counter-programming for the festive season as well. Well done, all!

(This review is for the opening night performance which took place on Thursday, December 1st. It continues through Decmeber 21st.)

Review – St John’s Night – Jermyn Street Theater

July 22, 2012

Tuesday marked a special night for me: not just a trip to a new theater, but a trip to see an Ibsen play I’d never seen before! St John’s Night was receiving its UK premiere at the Jermyn Street Theater more than 150 years after it was written – actually rather a run of local enthusiasm for Ibsen since his play Emperor and Galilean (1873) had just made ITS debut last year. I was very excited to see a new play by my favorite 19th Century playwright – at this rate I might actually get around to all 26 before the end of 2020 (my total is now 9).

I was also excited to go to a new theater space. Jermyn Street is a tiny little theater just steps away from the chaos of Picadilly Circus. Technically it’s in the West End, but as I went down the stairs off of an alleyway, it seemed like I might have been heading to an evening of rather seedier entertainment than usual. Still, there in a cubbyhole was a tiny theater seating about 80 folks, most of whom needed to be very very short if their legs were going to fit comfortably between their chair and the row in front of them.

People: there is NOT ENOUGH SPACE IN THESE DAMNED SEATS. I sat sideways the whole time. Be warned that of the five or so rows in this theater, the first is (obviously) fine and the row that is on the walkway around the theater is also a reasonable seating option. However, in the second row, I found I had to sit sideways the whole time. Be advised if you come to this theater that you should take advantage of the fact it is general seating and FIND THE GOOD ONES. No real worry if you’re five foot tall or less, of course, but most of us aren’t.

Venue shortcomings aside, let us return to the play. Inside the theater, I was met by two goblinesque men playing musical instruments strangely (tunelessly and, in the case of the violin, upside down). To their right were two houses, one a fairy-tale pink with white lace curtains – practically a gingerbread house – the other a grey, weathered shack that looked like the kind of place chickens would meet their end. Yet it’s the gingerbread house that has the witch, in the form of widow Berg, whose goal in life seems to be to make sure her daughter Juliane is married well. Meanwhile she barely tolerates the continued presence of her stepdaughter Anne and Anne’s grandfather (who lives in the scary hut). Anne and her grandfather are very close, but the “new” family (Mrs. Berg and her two adult children from her previous marriage) see them both as mentally off, dismissable, and generally speedbumps in the road of progress. It seemed to be the “old Norway” and the “new Norway” meeting each other together, the old valuing its folktales and traditions, the new valuing, well, money.

Things look to be going well for Juliane as she is about to be engaged to a young man from town, Johannes, an alliance which will result a farm for the young couple … but there seems to be something fishy about Mrs. Berg’s rush to make the marriage, and something not on about the title to the farm. And Juliane, the “modern” young woman, begins to seem less sensible than “crazy” Anne, who shows qualities of loyalty and sensibility (while professing a belief in goblins) especially when contrasted with the freshly arrived poet, Birk. It’s clear that the two male/female pairs are mismatched somehow, but a change of alliances seems impossible. That is, of course, until the goblins stick their noses into it, via some spiked punch.

This play is a strange and wonderful mess, not as psychologically advanced as Ibsen’s last works, but wonderfully contrasting the banal (Mrs. Berg) with the imaginative (Anne and her grandfather). Ibsen then adds to the mix a character who professes to support “the national traditions,” but only as a method of self-aggrandizement. In fact, this character, Poulsen, seems to see anything he is interested in as basically another decoration for his own wonderful world of Poulsen-ness. His commitment to art of any sort seems as tenuous as Bunthorne’s in Gilbert and Sullivan’s play Patience – basically he’ll feign an interest in anything that draws more attention to himself. The mannerisms and patterns of speech of this character are so like Bunthorne that I thought perhaps Ibsen had lifted the character and dropped it in his play – but apparently vain poets are a more universal phenomenon than I’d expected, as it’s Ibsen that beat G&S to the punch by at least 30 years!

At any rate, Poulsen is a hysterical addition to this play, and wonderfully performed by Danny Lee Wynter in a painfully inappropriate blonde wig. To top it off, his friend Jorgen (David Osmond) is on the same level of over-the-top-ness – and while it could have made the play a camp carnival, instead it made it easier to swallow. Goblins? People hallucinating in the woods? Fairy tales coming to life? WHY NOT? Add a dollop of greed courtesy of Mrs. Birk and wide-eyed first love googliness from Anne (Louise Calf) and Birk (Ed Birch), and you’ve got more than enough plot and characters to make for a full night. I found it charming and enjoyable, a good value for the money and very fine performances to boot. Just be warned to snag those front row seats or you’ll find yourself limping out the door.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday July 17th, 2012, and continues through August 4th.)