Posts Tagged ‘Union Theatre Southwark’

Guest review – Cloud 9 – Fandango productions at the Union Theatre

September 5, 2009

(Guest review courtesy of Elizabeth Baxter-Williams.)

I don’t care if it makes me sound like a drama teacher. I like Caryl Churchill. Her dialogue sparkles, especially when she’s putting words in the mouths of children. In short, she’s a good play-write, who cares that she’s not particularly in vogue?

So it was with lightness in my step that I arrived at the Union Theatre, just the wrong side of punctual, to see a Fandango’s 30th Anniversary production of Cloud 9, Churchill’s play about gender, sexuality and the structures of society.

The space we are in is just what you would expect: a small black studio with a minimum of clutter which is perfectly sized for the cast of seven. The audience is not quite in the round but on three sides, a fact which seems to have largely been ignored in blocking. Despite this, the direction is solid, and the first act flows wonderfully.

We are in colonial Africa, and the natives are, as it were, revolting. Mrs Saunders, a widow, has sought refuge from the rioting in the home of a British colonial Administrator, Clive, his family and staff. They are soon joined by an explorer named Harry Bagley. What follows is nothing short of a romp. While the head of the household Clive embodies colonialism and the values it entails, his wife Betty, played excellently in both acts by Alan Gibbons and Jennifer Bryden respectively, is the epitome, outwardly, of the perfect Victorian wife. We explore the relationships of the characters and glimpse what it be a sexual being in an era of oppression and repression.

Jamie Honeybourne’s directing is subtle but smart, aside from the aforementioned blocking issues. The comedy is gentle and enjoyable but ultimately the play has lost its shocking edge.

Act two benefits from a gin and tonic in the interval. Though set in 1979, only twenty-five years have passed for our characters. Grown up, and before a very different socio-political backdrop, each role is now played by a different member of the cast. Characterisation in the second act is patchy though, and while the cast do pull it together the transition seems a little forced. There is, however, one stand out performance: Jennifer Bryden is truly wonderful. I cannot fault her sweet portrayal of young Edward in the first act nor her switch to playing Betty in act two. She plays both roles with deep empathy and shines among the otherwise variable cast. Anthony Obeney too is excellent in his playing of both Cathy and Clive, but Bryden’s perfect handling of the act two monologue on the discovery of masturbation just gives her the edge.

It is a shame that Cloud 9 isn’t quite relevant in this age of civil partnerships and widespread polyamory. If you are a Churchill fan, and there must be at least one more out there, Cloud 9 is worth the perfectly reasonable ticket price. For Churchill virgins too, it is a good introduction. But for those who have grown weary of her very personal style, well, Cloud 9 won’t reverse your opinion.

(This guest review is for the performance that took place on 4th September. Performances continue Tues-Sat until 26th September, 2009. For an alternate view, please see the West End Whingers.)

Review – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Union Theatre

February 22, 2009

On Friday I went with J, Josh, and Cate to see Jekyll and Hyde at the Union Theatre in Southwark. I was particularly interested in seeing this show because it was an original adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novella (by James Maclaren) and one of the other versions (i.e. the musical by Joan Eshkenazi or the one by Simon Adorian). I’ve also got a soft spot for the Union, with its delicious under-the-railway ambience and highly affordable pricing scheme (£12 each, full price, really works for me).

Although I thought I knew what this play was about – mad scientist takes potion that turns him into evil murderer – this show gave me a lot more insights into the story (not sure if it’s supported by the actual text but after seeing this play I’m interesting in looking at the source material). London is portrayed as more of a seamy, late-Victorian era city, with the fog a metaphor for its dirty underbelly (in some ways the ever-present world of sexual hungers but worked more to be a metaphor about human passions, including temper and the desire for power) coexisting beside the world of rationality, morality, and all of that other puffed-up claptrap. Our narrator is Gabriel John Utterson (apologies for not crediting the actor but I can’t find it anywhere online and I was too skint to buy a program), a lawyer, who lives at home with a wife (insert name here if I ever get it!) and child. He seems to value himself as a representative of all of the Victorian virtues – and is actively forcing his wife to live the life appropriate to the way he wishes to portray himself to society – while frequently going on about a variety of dastardly dealings he’s getting up to when he’s out of the house. (We never find out what he’s really doing. A blackmailer? A front for stolen goods? A hitman? He could have been involved in white slavery for all I could tell.)

This conflict between the values of “society” and man’s passion – in its manifold manifestations – seems to be the heart of this story, and I think that in the ways that the text varies from that of the original, it is likely to further emphasize this difference. The play seems to be taking the place in a spooky, Jack-the-Ripper-esque version of London, which seems a perfect way to emphasize the violence, sexual license, and desperation that coexisted beside the more Dickensian fantasy version* of Victorian London. The scenes really played up the gas-lamp and candlelight interiors (good job, Steve Miller – this is the first piece I’ve seen here that seemed really professionally lit) and used them to fantastic effect in conjunction with blackouts (which had me jumping out of my seat).

Dr. Jekyll (name!) does seem a believable, quirky, misanthropic scientist (whose ultimate speech rather reminded me of something out of an Ayn Rand novel) and Hyde (name again!) is a frightening vision of murderous intent. I also loved the stiff butler (Mr. Poole – actor’s name unknown!) and the multifaceted actor who portrayed Sir Danvers Carew (whom in this version is not a “kindly member of parliament” but another representative of the depraved side of the upper class), Hastie Lanyon, and a strange, nervous client of the lawyers. Sadly, all of these people’s good work was brought down a bit by the way act one dragged. I mean, really, I was hoping for something quite a bit more spooky, and this was pretty generally just a psychological drama. Still, the second act picked up a great deal, and I enjoyed watching the story spin toward its twisted, violent ending (but not too violent for a little creamcake like myself – I scare easily).

On a whiny note, I really wish the Union would get it together about their website now that they’ve deprecated the old site. First, because this isn’t a normal website, my employer blocks me from accessing it from work (I don’t know what is special about Webeden but my company’s filtering software says it’s “a web site hosting site” and for some reason it doesn’t consider these safe). Second, there is just a real lack of information about the shows on there – very little about the season as a whole, and NEVER so much as a list of the actors involved in the show. I mean, how hard would it have been to have done that? It could just be copied from the text of the program onto the website and it would be right there for me and my review. But no. My apologies to the actors I would have loved to have said nice things about but couldn’t.

*Dickens actually wasn’t too upbeat about Victorian London but the sex is decidedly stripped out of his works.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, February 20th, 2009. The production continues until Saturday, February 28th, 2009.)