Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE.
New plays and musicals are, of course, the absolute lifeblood of theatre; we need a regular supply of them to replenish and revitalise the repertoire, while also keeping the classics alive and allowing more recent new work to also have a chance of becoming classics themselves, by reviving them, too. British theatre is pretty good at balancing these competing requirements (though less good on the new musicals front, especially of the homegrown variety); in any given week, we get a decent spread of new productions that allow these requirements to be met.
Just this week, for instance, London has seen four big new plays come to town, including the opening tonight of Mike Bartlett’s latest THE 47TH (at the Old Vic) and last night’s Royal Court opening of Ryan Calais Cameron’s FOR BLACK BOYS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE WHEN THE HUE GETS TOO HEAVY, which I hope to catch in due course. (The latter’s title is, of course, inspired by Ntozke Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, currently previewing in New York ahead of a Broadway revival that is set to open on April 20).
I’ve seen the first two openings of the week, though, and I’ve been invigorated and irritated in turn; but both are at least challenging positions to take rather than shows that left me without a reaction at all.
The invigorating one was Alexis Zegerman’s THE FEVER SYNDROME at Hampstead Theatre, a Manhattan Theatre Club commission that Hampstead have picked up to give the world premiere of. This intense and multi-layered inter-generational family drama is played out on an appropriately multi-levelled set that puts a venerable Manhattan townhouse onstage like a gigantic advent calendar that lets us see into various rooms simultaneously (the designer is Lizzie Clachan; pictured below from Clive Davis’s Twitter account).
It is powered by a titanic performance from Robert Lindsay as a formidable scientist who is now seriously ailing. As his three adult children (played by LIsa Dillon, Sam Marks and Alex Waldmann) converge to see him receive a major honour, the long shadows he has cast on their lives are intricately unravelled.
It is both gripping and painful to watch their trauma being revisited; at one point, the boyfriend of one of the sons remarks on his going to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. I wanted to send the entire family to ACoA (Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families), the 12-step fellowship I have excavated my own past through, and come to terms with at last.
If THE FEVER SYNDROME revolves around the dominating presence of a father, Jeremy O. Harris’s ”DADDY” is defined by the absence of one, as a promising young black artist Franklin finds solace instead in the arms of a much older rich white art collector Andre, and takes up residence in his Bel Air mansion. Matt Saunders’s design puts a functioning swimming pool downstage centre (the front rows do get splashed).
Dressed (and occasionally, undressed thanks to that swimming pool) in a glossily chic production, this play irritated me nearly as much as MR BURNS did at the same address in 2014; if this is where “queer theatre” is heading, it’s not for me. But who is it for?
Yes, it raises queasy and frequently uncomfortable questions about the commodification of art and sexuality; is it possible to put a price on both? And at what cost does that price come?
It takes a long time to get there (nearly three hours); some of it seems to be provocation for provocation’s sake, as we are forced to watch Andre’s voracious sexual hunger, then domination, of his muse and plaything ((he even licks his leg at one point; at others, spanks him),. As Andre, Danish actor Claes Bang’s fully-exposed performance, in every sense, is blatant in fetishing Tarique Jarrett’s beauty as Franklin; though we pretty much have to take Franklin’s actual talent on trust, as the miniature dolls he makes don’t look that impressive.
The 32-year-old Harris has already become a vocal presence on Broadway, where his first play SLAVE PLAY received a record number of Tony nominations (but no wins). We are yet to see that play here; as Nick Curtis remarked in his Evening Standard review, “There’s a slight sense we’re getting the difficult second album before seeing the smash hit: the echo rather than the Big Bang”.
Another hospital visit looms
I am heading into a different kind of theatre — an operating one — on Monday, for another round of spinal surgery. I had a spinal fusion 18 months ago, and they are going to do a revision: as I replied to my surgeon this is not the first time that I’ve been told this).
I’m hopeful that this will finally free me of the severe pain I’ve been in for the last six months or so. I’ve not allowed it to defeat me, though, and have maintained my theatregoing (and transatlantic adventures) as much as I can.
It has entailed taking cabs on very short rides: last week, I hailed one to go the short distance from Cambridge Circus to Piccadilly Circus; and when I told my cabbie why, it turned out he was a fellow back pain sufferer, even though at 32, much younger than me, and when we arrived at Brasserie Zedel, he not only helped me out of his cab by lending me his arm, but also refused to take my fare. So my faith in human nature is restored!
Still, I’m seriously gutted to have missed Ruth Wilson in Ivo van Hove’s THE HUMAN VOICE, mainly because I love her. and also the transfer of the Union Theatre’s HMS PINAFORE to Wilton’s (mainly because I love Wilton’s; I’ve seen this production several times already!), both of which end their runs this weekend.
I’m still hoping to catch TOM FOOL at the Orange Tree (running to April 16, for two favourite actors, Michael Shaeffer and Anna Francolini, pictured above).
Also currently on my catch-up list are the revival of CLYBOURNE PARK (at the Park, to April 23, with Imogen Stubbs,Andrew Langtree, RIchard Lintern and dancer turned actor Eric Underwood), STRAIGHT LINE CRAZY at the Bridge (with Ralph Fiennes, Samuel Barnett, Danny Webb and Helen Schlesinger), and the revival of ANYONE CAN WHISTLE (to see the wonderful Alex Young as Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper) that opened at Southwark Playhouse on Tuesday.
SEE YOU NEXT FRIDAY (I hope!)
Because of my hospital stay, I won’t be here for most of next week. I will try to return on Friday. If you can’t wait that long, I can also be found regularly on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/.