Whoever is in charge of choosing the plays for the Bush Theatre certainly has a social concussion. So far this year they’ve covered themes from racism to legal aids cuts, and tonight, we come upon global warming. One thing they can never be accused of is not tackling some meaty topics.
Knowing the theme of the play, the title does sort of speak for itself really, but the polar bear also takes physical form in the young daughter’s stuffed toy, lost somewhere in the home that the parents are trying to sell in order to move to somewhere nicer by the river, a move being made possible by the father’s high powered job in an energy company and who is working on a deal that will make the move even more possible.
Added to the stress of the lost toy and father’s job, we have the wife, stressed about everything in life and desperate to give her daughter everything she can to make sure she has the best start in life, then the energy conscious au pair from Iceland who is stressed about the tiniest little piece of silver foil in the bin rather than it being in the recycling, and finally the ex-drug addict brother, happy with his simple life and girlfriend who “isn’t a looker but she makes me happy” but stressed about making amends with the brother who he admires. Oh and there is also the hamster that needs its twice daily exercise. There is a lot of stress in this household.
And as ever with the Bush Theatre, it’s all played out on a stage that has been so well thought out. One of the joys of attending a new play here is in seeing how the space has been laid out; this time around they return to a centre stage, with seating around the outside. And with just 144 seats its always intimate, no matter where you sit. You’re so close to the action at times you could almost reach out and touch the actors; in fact tonight I was sitting alongside one of the four entrances into the stage and at a rather dramatic point between young daughter and father, was almost face to face with him as he raved and slowly lost his mind. It was slightly disturbing to say the least. The knife in his hand didn’t help much either.
The set is as simple as always here; one room, a few items of furniture, walls defined by strips of lights, which are used for great effect as the play progresses, and almost everything else is left to the imagination and aided by sound and light effects. The four exits off stage and between the seated audience become the rest of the house; through one door you know it’s the kitchen, you can even hear the tumble dryer, much to the dismay of the au pair who feels they could hang clothes out to dry!
It’s played out at a fast, at times hectic, pace, and over and done in 90 minutes flat without a break, just to add to the stress that is building. And to drum home the central message of global warming, there is a lot of talk of energy consumption, mobile phones are constantly plugged in, the aforementioned tumble dryer comes on and off, lights flicker, and we see family life on the edge for the first hour as mum and dad rush around with their busy important lives, while brother and au pair try to stay calm and enjoy the simpler life. And at the same time, they all seek the lost polar bear.
The play is certainly funny, the writing keeps it moving along nicely and the staging keeps your eyes focused and your mind engaged. It’s not until the last half hour that the play starts to really preach it’s message, but in a way that isn’t as clear cut as you might expect. Yes the message is that we are killing the planet, but the central argument becomes one of whether one person can make a difference, or even whether many people can change things. And if I was to be critical at all, I’d say here it slightly fails, as over a short space of time we go through too many options and thoughts, although it is probably the intention to show how things cannot be as black or white as we would wish. But this one issue aside, it’s a play worth an evening out.
And as ever with anything I’ve seen at Bush Theatre, you do walk out knowing you have not only enjoyed an evening out seeing a great play as well as knowing that you will be discussing this for the rest of the evening afterwards with whoever you may have seen it with.
A play about legal aid cuts… no, wait, it’s not that bad, please, don’t stop reading, give it a chance. Still here? Good, so, as I was saying…
Legal aid and the government’s decision to reduce eligibility to claim it is maybe not the most riveting of topics for a play. So when the Bush Theatre commissioned Rebecca Lenkiewicz to write such a play, there are many thoughts that spring to mind. Such as:
You want what as the topic of a play?
Are you mad?
Why did she actually say yes?
and the list goes on. Thankfully Lenkiwicz did said yes. And gave very good reason for that.
Such a remit in the hands of mere amateurs would no doubt be a disaster, then again, most things in the hands of amateurs usually are; take this review for starters. The first things that come to mind about legal aid, for those of us a little left leaning, is how it will create a two tier legal system, how the less fortunate of society will be trodden upon as they fail to get the help they need. So it would be all too easy to write something that shows this in all its ugly truth, the rich against the poor played out in the courtroom, the under-privileged against the privileged, and we all know where that ends.
It’s a relief then that Lenkiewicz goes for a more subtle approach. While our central character, Gail, may be a lawyer struggling to pay the bills of her small community based firm, it’s hardly noticeable for much of the time. In fact the two halves of the play both open around her (disastrous) blind dates as she seeks out romance to get away from the pressures of the day job. It’s humorous as we watch first the discomfort as the dates clatter along without success, and then they are used to subtly introduce the topic at hand; both dates in fact being just an excuse for the men to try to get help with their own issues, both unable to afford proper legal assistance.
Interspersed with her doomed love life we see her legal firm; her and an assistant, and the pressures of running this as funding is slashed. It may be subtly done, but for anyone with knowledge of the type of people who are the clients of such firms, it is clear what the message is going to be.
Over the course of two enjoyable hours we see reference to who is going to be most affected by such cuts; those with low level mental health, those living in sub-standard housing, those earning just enough to survive but not enough to employ a solicitor when things go wrong. Again, the list goes on, but it can be simplified maybe by just saying “the poor.” Or if you are a Tory lover, that can be rephrased for you as “unimportant people.”
The play flows smoothly, scenes move quickly from the blind dates around the restaurant table, into the law firm, into the lives of those affected and in need of such help. And slowly the picture is built, that these are people who aren’t scroungers, they aren’t leeching off us hard working upstanding citizens, but rather, and for various reasons, they are people in need of help. And the play shows that the help is going to vanish, leaving those who need this help stranded. Simple as.
The problem as ever with plays such as this is twofold. Firstly, in its simplicity. It is near-on impossible to do justice to such a serious topic in two hours whilst also entertaining. Second, and maybe more importantly, it’s already preaching to the converted. I doubt anyone who bothers to turn up to this charming little theatre in Shepherds Bush is the type of person who doesn’t already agree with Lenkiewicz’s views of being “deeply troubled about the way society increasingly talks about the poor and less fortunate.”.
Then again, as she also says, “All I can do is shout loudly about it. A play may be a very small ripple, but it’s a start.” And there are a few minutes during “The Invisible” when that ripple becomes a wave, reaching a level of awareness that should be recorded and played over and over again to anyone who thinks legal aid should be done away with; I’m thinking we should all club together and hire a big screen to play it on outside the next Tory party conference, anyone fancy chipping in?
For we see Aisha, one of three totally varied characters played by the same actor, Sirine Saba (and to me, the absolute stand out performance). She sits and explains what has happened to her. The background already having been set earlier; an arranged marriage, moved to live with her new husband and his over-bearing mother, and quickly isolated and abused, physically and mentally.
She speaks softly and slowly, in stuttering English, how she feels, how she is in need of help but has not been able to find anyone who will listen to her. Yet. It’s an incredibly powerful few moments, gone is the light heartedness of it all for the briefest of scenes.
Then Gail begins to ask her to expand, and there is a sad beauty as Aisha repeatedly changes the subject, seemingly shocked that someone is, at last, taking her seriously, that there is help at hand to someone in a strange place with no friends, no support and no money. “It was my birthday on Saturday, we went to Kew Gardens” she explains in complete contrast to the violence she has been the victim of as she pulls out sweets to offer to Gail, as in a way of saying thank you for listening.
In those few minutes perhaps the very meaning of the play is in full glare for anyone who takes the time to watch it, and maybe in the audience each night might be one or two people whose opinions could alter, and that could be the small ripple Lenkiewicz is referring to?
So, still reading? In that case, please do think about going, it is a wonderful way to spend two hours in a wonderful little theatre.
“I’ll come to the theatre with you. But none of your weird shit.” my friend and work colleague suggested while we were having lunch one day in April. For someone so respected in the office, she does sometimes have a direct and blunt way with words
Of course what I should have asked is “define weird.” I mean, just look at the big west end shows, surely they are “weird” when you think about it. we have people painted green, others pretending to be animals, shows based on wars, shows about autism, and god knows what else. So, what exactly is my “weird shit” anyway?
But taking her simple request into consideration, I settled on The Angry Brigade, clearly not weird at all. What is wrong with a play based (loosely) on true events from the early 70s when a small group of activists bombed a number of big targets to protest against their perceived commercialisation of the world. See, perfectly normal, nothing weird at all in that, move along, nothing to see here thank you very much.
I’m fairly certain she agreed. As I forwarded on the emails from the theatre to tell us more about the play and its history, I took her comment of “oh god what have I let myself in for?” as a clear sign her interest had been piqued. Then the night of the play finally with us, I introduced her to the marvelous Bush Theatre; “yes, it is a converted library, what’s weird about that?”
So what about the play anyway, this perfectly normal play that I picked to avoid anything too weird? Well, it really is a play of two halves, both in content and style. The first half sees the four actors as the police seeking out the activists. Then the second half they are now the activists, the same time period as the first half now re-run from their viewpoint.
As the police, everything begins very formal, very straight, very normal. Desks are neatly arranged, people correctly attired, formalities followed, tea and biscuits on offer, everything is as it should be. But as it progresses and the four police officers try to get into the minds of the activists, it slowly changes. The office becomes a mess, paper strewn everywhere, desks are moved out of line, and the officers become more relaxed, no longer the formality of earlier; in uniform or language. In short, they slowly descend into a form of anarchy.
In total contrast, the second half begins in chaotic, anarchic fashion. The four actors, now playing the activists, run around the theatre, scenes happen all over the small and intimate surroundings, making us look all around ourselves to see where the voices are coming from. Scenes descend into song and dance for no apparent reason other than it is anarchy. Other scenes flick quickly between time lines, no longer the more linear approach of the first half. And yet as they head towards the moment where the two halves collide and end, there are suggestions that the anarchists are becoming more formal; tea is even being served.
Lines slowly become blurred between the two halves, the police formality trails towards anarchy while the anarchists seem to seek more formality. You are left wondering who are the good guys and who are the bad? After all, how can the bad guys be the ones claiming to want to help others, and yet how can the good guys be the ones planting bombs? As with so much, there is no real answer, no black and white, just many blurred lines in-between.
There are some stunning performances, the ease with which the four actors switch between characters, one moment a police officer, the next a witness, then later an activist, leaves you admiring how flawless and flowing it all is.
There is clearly some artistic licence to the play, and I’m sure if I were to research the real history, much of what was portrayed tonight would be debatable as to its truthfulness.
While set in 1971, it had the feel of today, and maybe it can be questioned how much of the premise was influenced by today’s thinking. Concepts of commercialisation, a lack of trust in authority, politicians having vested interests, all maybe as true today as when the Angry Brigade were rallying against them in their time.
But as with all good theatre, the aim is to make you think, to make you discuss it. And discuss it me and my friend did as we wandered back to the tube afterwards; the concept, the stunning performances, the fantastic use of such minimal staging, and the perfectly normal non-weirdness of it all… ok, maybe the last wasn’t discussed, maybe that was in my mind?
And in-between our happy deep ramblings about what we had just seen, she stated “I want to read what you write before you put it on your blog.” And for a moment I thought that would be only fair, but then on second thoughts, we had just seen a play about anarchy, and well, I thought it only right that I should have this one act of rebellion, it’s the anarchist in me, live with it darling, live with it.
So I publish and be damned. After all my friend, it’s all just more of my “weird shit.” Take it up with me over lunch later while I try to convince you to come back to see something else perfectly as normal another time.
As The Royale drew to its close tonight I sat in wonder as our central character, the black boxer Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson, entered the ring against the world champion, except that the person facing him was his sister, who in herself represented the black population of America in 1905 when the play is set. As the fight was played out in superb chorography, the pair entered conversation about what the fight meant, not just to Jackson himself, but more importantly, the whole of the black population of America.
It was a scene that left me in wonder as to how someone could come up with such an idea; I can get my head around a character to represent more than one person (the black population) and an idea or thought (racial tensions), after all this is what the chorus line in every Greek tragedy is about, but to then take that concept and play it out in the guise of a boxing match is just utter genius, tinged with a stroke of madness and explains why this play has had such great reviews and is now sold out for the remainder of its run.
It’s very loosely based on the life of a real boxer, Jack Johnson rather than Jay Johnson. Jack Johnson did fight for the world heavyweight crown in 1905, a fight that did cause massive controversy at the time because he was black. Major liberties are taken with his story, but that is because the play isn’t really about him, but about the racial tensions of the times.
While the play closes with the boxing match ending, it also closes with the knowledge that more fighting is beginning in the form of the riots and tensions that occurred for real when Johnson won the fight, outrage that a black man could be the heavyweight champion and beat the white man, and that the black population celebrated. It’s a powerful end, more so because of the imagery of the sister as the opponent rather than the actual boxer.
The staging is as simple as it can get. The centre stage, surrounded on all four sides by banks of seating, is just a wooden square that shakes as the actors move around, and the only items used are two wooden stalls. And yet it doesn’t matter, it is a boxing ring from the moment the actors set foot on it and start the opening scenes, and it is the changing rooms of the boxing hall when they are talking pre-fight, it doesn’t need lots of props, just the right words and a little imagination, something that this play has plenty of.
The fights are played out in an imaginative way as well, at times the opponents aren’t even close, or looking at each other. At one point Jackson is addressing the audience with his thoughts, and as he swings his fists, his opponent folds over as if hit. It might sound stupid, but it works, the power of the words and the visual effect making the fact no punch really landed so unimportant.
This was a play that left me stunned on so many levels; I was in awe of not just the brilliance of the acting, the writing and the actors, but it also left me wanting to know more about the real boxer, and the history behind him and the real fight. Something that I did as soon as I was home, reading up on the real boxer and the issues around the troubles that the fight caused.
And it was a play I wanted to talk about, the first thing I did on leaving was text a friend with the less than subtle message “fucking hell that was powerful”, maybe not my most eloquent use of words, but I feel expressed how I felt in that moment.