This is the fourth collaboration between director Enda Walsh and actor Cillian Murphy, and after seeing Ballyturk a few years ago I knew this play would be a “must-see”, despite knowing little about the book it is based on, Max Porter’s debut novel of the same name.
We meet Dad and his two young sons (all are nameless) in the flat which is now somehow too big and sparsely furnished for them. Every step, every surface speaks of the loss of Mum, who has died and left them bereft. People call with sympathy, but nothing concrete, nothing useful. “They say we need time but what we need is nit cream and batteries.”
Then one day the doorbell rings and there is Crow, a monstrous, visceral, all consuming being who is terrifyingly dark, coating the stage walls with words and inky blackness. Dad and Crow become one, obsessional, the yin and the yang, the Jekyll and the Hyde, the introvert and the extrovert, the inward cry and the primal scream of grief.
Murphy plays both Dad and Crow, shape-shifting into the protective yet destructive bird by pulling up the hood of his dressing gown, tucking his elbows out and hands in to form wings, standing spread-eagled to form webbed feet. Crow’s vocals are rough, deep, primeval, utilising different microphones and voice gymnastics. He drinks from a straw in a rabbit’s head, roughly masturbates against Dad’s writing desk, rips out the bloody heart of “I miss my wife” and tosses it into the void.
Dad is consumed by thoughts of Crow. He draws him, inhales him, rages against the dying of the light. Yet for all Crow’s bombast and power, there are the small moments too – Crow becomes Dad on a tumble down the stairs, with the boys asking “Dad, are you dead?” as he lays supine on the floor; a recording of Mum recounting a pilgrimage by Dad to see his hero, Ted Hughes, in Oxford.
The boys are mostly mute, not quite sure what to say to Dad, blinded by Crow, missing Mum, staying in the routine of loss. Their TV surrogates are evoked by projections of entertainers, presenters, newsreaders and mums in adverts; home movies of Mum project in huge height over the tiny Dad and boys who remain without her.
This is mainly a one-man performance, and Murphy is staggeringly good. A fearless actor who engages completely with both the grieving Irish widower and father and the gigantic, overbearing presence of Crow. He leaps and bounds around the stage, spits and snarls, stomps and watches. A dynamic and physical performance which is as scary to watch as it must be exhausting to do, night after night.
Dad won’t find one of Mum’s hairs around again. She’ll never finish that Patricia Highsmith novel. He’ll engage with other bodies which are not like hers, on the sofa she bought, in the flat where she died. He’ll finish his critical opus on the work of Ted Hughes, bluff and huge Yorkshire poet, when not doodling or daydreaming, or trying not to wake the boys.
In one scene Dad and boys go to a bird sanctuary where crows and eagles fly while the sons eat chips from packets which fall down to them. The boys will grow, and teach their children to shout “Crow”, and feel protected by the feathers which enveloped them in the wings of sorrow and pain.
Hattie Morahan, in film and audio form, plays the memory of Mum, and four boys share the role of the two sons (David Evans and Taighen O’Callaghan, Leo Hart and Adam Pemberton). Although on the periphery, the boys are ever present, and their performances must be commended – but this is Murphy’s show, and he’s magnificent.
Do not miss this – you’ll shudder, you might have to duck projectile props if you’re near the front, and you will most definitely have a tear in your eye when Dad and his sons walk away, hand in hand.
Welcome to the second instalment of The Mix, in which I’ll look at some of the things in London theatre which have caught my eye.
A is for Admissions
Alex Kingston stars in Joshua Harmon’s new comedy at the Trafalgar Studios, where it runs until 25 May, after which it has a run at Richmond Theatre until 1 Jun.
Described as a “bold new comedy” this both takes a knock at the status quo and, timely enough, reflects some of the corruption going on overseas over fixed university and school places. I will be reporting back from this show soon. For information see https://trafalgarentertainment.com/shows/admissions/
B is for Bunker and Boulevard
The Bunker Theatre was converted from an underground car park into an ambitious, artist-led space with two resident companies, Damsel Productions and Pint-Sized. Now in its third season, The Bunker presents an interesting mix of productions in an eclectic space underneath the Menier Chocolate Factory. I’ll be visiting to see Funeral Flowers later in the year.
The Boulevard Theatre has been announced as Soho’s newest playhouse, due to open in autumn 2019. Built on the site of the legendary Raymond’s Revuebar, this vibrant arts venue will host theatre, comedy, cabaret, music, film and literature with a seated capacity of 165.
C is for the Canal Cafe
The Canal Cafe Theatre celebrates its 40th birthday this year. Based on the edge of the Regent’s Canal, above the Bridge House Pub, the 60 seat theatre (arranged as table seating) presents comedy and drama, and helped to launch acts such as Miranda Hart and the League of Gentlemen. It is the home of the NewsRevue, the world’s longest running comedy show.
Mobile phones, takeaways, sing-alongs, photography, heckling, late comers, drunk audience members, coughing, noisy sweet wrappers, putting drinks or bags or yourself on the stage, you name it. It’s a tough old world out there and theatre is a nice escape for many of us, so if you’re guilty of any of the items in the list: just stop!
A few things you may want to bear in mind if you want to be a model audience member – put your phone away (switched off) during the performance, keep your singing in your own head, don’t snap pics, don’t interrupt or talk, don’t stagger in late, don’t stagger in drunk, suck a cough sweet and sip on a bottle of water (or if you’re coughing badly, stay at home in bed), bring loose sweets only, respect the performers’ space even if it is just literally that rather than a conventional stage.
Simple, isn’t it?
F is for Frozen
If you’d been on the Theatre Royal Drury Lane backstage tours last year just before the theatre closed for renevation, you will have known that Frozen was set to be the first new show on re-opening in autumn 2020, but it is now official, and you can sign up for information and pre-sale of tickets. No news yet on whether any of the Broadway cast will transfer with the show but you can read the rave review of the New York production at https://www.newyorktheatreguide.com/reviews/review-of-disneys-frozen-on-broadway
The film of Frozen is the highest grossing animated film of all time, and the stage production, directed by Michael Grandage, has already won a Tony Award nomination for best new musical. The Drury Lane production will feature set and costume design by Christoper Oram, lighting design by Natasha Katz, choreography by Rob Ashford.
G is for Groan Ups
Mischief Theatre (The Play That Goes Wrong, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery) have announced their new show, set to open at the Vaudeville Theatre in September 2019. Groan Ups is a brand-new comedy about growing-up, asking whether we are really that different at 30 than at 13, this is being pitched as “a lesson not to be skipped”.
The Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester is proving to be a rich source of musicals transferring into the capital, with Pippin, Aspects of Love, Yank, and Hair.
Based in Ancoats, the company is a joint venture for creative couple William Wheldon and Joseph Houston, and producer Katy Lipson. Together they are Hope Aria and their current musical project is Rags.
Over at the Hope Theatre in Islington, a new production is underway. Thrill Me: the Leopold and Loeb Story centres on the murder popularised in the Hitchcock film Rope, this time made into a musical by Stephen Dolginoff. The show runs from 2-20 April. More information at http://www.thehopetheatre.com/
I is for the Iris Theatre
The Iris Theatre is one of London’s award winning theatre companies, performing each summer in the grounds of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden (known as the ‘Actors Church’).
This year’s summer season runs from 19 June-1 Sept and comprises Hamlet and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If the classics don’t appeal, try a ticket for a new musical Parenthood runs on the 3 May or Cleopatra runs on the 11 May.
Approaching its 30th anniversary in a former Barclays Bank branch in Camden, this ecletic nightspot offers a wide range of music and dance events. For listings and information visit https://thejazzcafelondon.com/
K is for Katzpace
Katzpace is a new 50 seat theatre based at London Bridge, under the German Bierkeller. Billed as “London’s coolest theatre” it showcases theatre and comedy with an edgy and intelligent feel, hosting scratch nights, queer theatre, improv and more.
At the start of April it becomes on of the venues for the 2019 London Pub Theatre Festival. Its resident theatre company, Exploding Whale Theatre, is made up of recent graduates. Keep an eye on the venue and its work at https://www.katzpace.co.uk/whats-on
L is for LIVR
LIVR merges live performance, streaming and virtual reality to provide access to theatrical experiences via a mobile phone and a headset. It is the first VR platform dedicated to theatre, to offer “the best seat in the house without leaving the house”.
With a monthly subscription and a growing library of content, this may revolutionise how we access our theatre spaces and productions. I hope to offer a full feature on how this works later in the year.
Over at the Finborough Theatre, musical Maggie May is enjoying a revival in its first London production in half a century. Lionel Bart’s show is a hard-hitting celebration of working-class life on Merseyside and runs to the 20 April. It also commemerates the 20th anniversary of Bart’s death.
The National has announced its new season and it is entirely made up of male playwrights, which is a little disappointing. However, I will be attending to see Hansard, featuring Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan, and I am intrigued by their new musical show for children and the young at heart, Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear.
The Open Air Theatre in Regents Park is often a martyr to the English weather, but unfailingly presents a summer season to shout about. This year the American perennial Our Town goes shoulder to shoulder with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while musical and opera fans are served by revivals of Evita and the ENO’s Hansel and Gretel.
London is chock-full of pub theatres, intimate and exciting spaces which generate new work and give a sideways slant on old favourites. They often have left-field or evocative names – The Hen and Chickens, Etcetera, Tabard, Katzpace, Bread and Roses. They may be small, but they are an essential part of London’s theatreland.
London’s theatreland is a safe and energising space for LGBTQ+ shows, with venues such as Above the Stag, the King’s Head, Soho Theatre, Hackney Showroom, Arcola Theatre, Park Theatre, The Glory, The Yard, Camden People’s Theatre, and more showcasing new writing, queer seasons, or even entire programming with the rainbow flag prominently in focus, the metropolis can certainly hold its head up with pride.
R is for the Rose
The Rose Theatre in Kingston upon Thames celebrated its tenth birthday last year and shows no signs of slowing down. As well as some excellent upcoming shows including Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and The Snow Queen, the theatre now has an Emerging Artists Fellowship in honour of its founder, Sir Peter Hall.
There is also a second Rose in London, the Rose Playhouse on Bankside. Billed as “Bankside’s first Tudor theatre”, this was the site of the Save The Rose campaign in 1989, and what has since been uncovered enjoys English Heritage Scheduled Monument status. Events taken place regularly, and there is a 30th anniversary gala planned in May. The Rose is still in desperate need of support – visit http://www.roseplayhouse.org.uk/experience/events/ to find out more.
S is for Shapeshifting
If you move quickly and get across to the Barbican Centre you can catch Cillian Murphy’s astonishingly physical and visceral performance as the Crow in Grief is the Thing With Feathers, which runs until 13 April. It’s sold out, but returns might be available on the day.
T is for Tributes
Over in Clapham rehearsals are underway for Tony’s Last Tape, a transfer from Nottingham in which Philip Bretherton plays Tony Benn, at the Omnibus Theatre. Presented by Excavate, this is based on the diaries of one of Britain’s seminal and most divisive politicians, and is accompanied by an exhibition – Tracey Moberley’s audio diaries of Tony Benn.
It’s British Summer Time so it must be time for return of the Underbelly Festival at the South Bank. Running from 5 April-29 September 2019, you can enjoy family-focused shows, comedy, cabaret, and the circus across 31 seperate shows. Now in its 11th year, there is also a large outdoor bar, street food, and a truly festival atmosphere with shows which are short (less than an hour), cheap (less than £20), and cheerful.
V is for Violet and Vincent River
Two shows to highlight this month.
At the Charing Cross, Jeanine Tesori’s musical Violet continues until the 6 April. This award-winning tearjerker set on a greyhound bus and its environs benefits from an excellent set and some very good performances.
Meanwhile, over at the Trafalgar Studios 2, Vincent River is a one-act play focusing on hate crime in Dagenham. It previously ran at the Hampstead Theatre in 200, and in the West End in 2007. It plays from the 16 May-22 June.
W is for Wembley and White City
New theatres are always worth celebration, and the first of two promised Troubadour Theatres opens in June, at Wembley Park, on the site of the former Fountain Studios. The inaugural productions are Dinosaur World Live and a stop-off for the tour of War Horse. The second Troubadour is due to open in White City, on former BBC Media Village land, later in the year, with two flexible spaces of 1,200 and 800 seats respectively. For more information see https://www.troubadourtheatres.com/
X is for King’s Cross (X)
In the vicinity of King’s Cross Station are a variety of fine performance spaces.
The Shaw Theatre is situated next to the British Library and has a programme of dance, musical theatre, drama and talks. They have recently made their My Fair Lady rehearsal space available for hire.
The Platform Theatre on Handyside St is part of Central St Martins at the University of the Arts and comprises four performance spaces and a bar.
King’s Place on York Way is described as ‘a hub for music, art, dialogue and food’.
Y is for the Yard
The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick aims to make “theatre about our world, today”. Around the corner from Hackney Wick Station in Queen’s Yard, this fully accessible space also boasts a bar and kitchen. Their current production, running to the 11 May, is a revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which for the first time has a female actor playing John Proctor. I’ll be reporting back from this show in April – for information and booking go to https://theyardtheatre.co.uk/theatre/events/the-crucible/
Z is for Z Hotels
Finally, if all the excitement leads you to want a place to lay your weary head, try the compact rooms of one of London’s Z hotels. With eight to choose from across the capital, and two more coming soon, this could be an affordable option for those of you travelling for your theatre fix.
When series one of Steven Knight’s ‘Peaky Blinders’ was shown this time last year it ended with what seemed like a cliffhanger setting up a second run with the Shelby family. My take on that final episode was ‘Setting up a second series?‘ and of course, that was the case.
Endings which leave questions hanging and the fate of others open are always the most infuriating in a way (consider the way the stunning final episode of Sherlock series 2 morphed into the disappointing splutter of the first episode of series 3). So it with a resounding thumbs-up that I report that no such problem has blighted ‘Peaky Blinders’.
We’re back on the railway station early on in the episode where Major Campbell (Sam Neill) aims a gun at spy Grace (Annabelle Wallis), and with the outstanding question of ‘who fired the shot’ quickly answered, we are ready to move on.
There has been decidedly mixed press about this new play by Enda Walsh, which has come to England following runs in Dublin and Cork. Hard to catagorise in any particular box, this can be classed as anything from black comedy to theatre of the absurd, to a frenetic physical showcase capped by a philosophical close, to ‘filling a room with words’.
A cast of three bring this play to the stage, under Walsh’s direction, and clearly every scene is closely choreographed, whether to the pulsing beats of ABC’s ‘The Look of Love’ or the smooth dialogue of the game of ‘Ballyturk’, where two men only called ‘1’ and ‘2’ create a day in the life of a town which only appears to exist in their head, from the local bully boy to the snipey lady shopkeeper (“I’ll not be out-bittered by a lemon”). Despite the Daily Mail asserting these two are brothers, there is no evidence to say whether they are brothers, strangers, father and son, or lovers. The conjecture is purely that of an audience who can make what they like of this set up.
Cillian Murphy plays ‘1’, and those who have seen him in both ‘Peaky Blinders’ on television, and in the films he has been part of (androgynously beautiful in ‘Breakfast at Pluto’, strangely vulnerable in ‘Disco Pigs’ – also directed by Walsh, tough in ‘Perrier’s Bounty’) know they show his range, which is built on here. He’s a livewire of activity, whether bounding up on to the curiously placed wooden furniture, working himself up into epileptic fits, or simply getting on with the minutae of life with a force which leaves him drenched in sweat for most of the production. He’s wickedly funny, too, and towards the end, quite heartbreaking, when he gets a chance to break from the repetitive existence he has shared with ‘2’ (dancing and drawing).
Mikel Murfi plays ‘2’. He’s not an actor I was familiar with, but on looking him up he was born as Michael Murphy, and rebranded himself early on, having made many stage appearances, a lot of collaboration with Walsh, and the occasional film (‘The Commitments’, ‘The Butcher Boy’). He is also a physical dynamo, and with quirky looks contained in an elastic face, he can switch from one emotion to another in a second, well showcased as he changes from one ‘Ballyturk’ character to another in a moment.
Into this bizarre existence, where the occasional disembodied voice comes through the walls, and ‘1’ and ‘2’ are – what – trapped? imprisoned? cocooned? – comes a louche visitor, known only as ‘3’, with cigarette in hand and, in a long existential monologue, a taste of what is available outdoors, from the disappointment of life to the things we all take for granted (sun, clouds, trees).
He is a challenge to the other two, and whether demanding tea and biscuits (which leads to an amusing biscuit jenga game, done in such a laid-back way it is almost imperceptible), singing an old classic, ‘Time After Time’ (with a microphone that appears from up high, for no reason) or quietly staring out ‘1’, he is a dynamic force coming into the partnership we have witnessed so far.
‘3’ is played by Stephen Rea, and his character is so quiet and nonchalant he exudes real danger and an unsettling vibe to the piece. I hadn’t seen him on stage before but have been long familiar with his film work, and he hasn’t lost any of that power he’s brought to the screen in the past.
The ending, to me, was one open to interpretation, of what is beyond the wall which had parted to allow ‘3’ to join the party. If ‘1’ and ‘2’ had always been able to leave, why hadn’t they? If they were always destined to be trapped, why was the opportunity presented now, and what would it lead to? Was the ‘death’ that ‘3’ spoke of really a reintroduction back into the real life, and the inevitable mortality that involved? And just who was ‘3’, anyway?
As we left the National another audience member had clearly endured enough during the 90 minutes, dismissing this play as “a load of bloody rubbish!”. The audience reaction generally was mixed, I thought, some enthuastically applauding, others muted and quiet. I found ‘Ballyturk’ interesting, infuriating, funny, charming, and touching, I might be biased as a fan of both Rea and Murphy, but they don’t disappoint, and this play is a challenge for sure, but a worthwhile one.
After six weeks’ worth of episodes, ‘Peaky Blinders’ finally came to an end last night, Set in post-Great War Birmingham, this series introduced us to the Shelby family (Arthur, Tommy, John, Ada, Finn and Aunt Polly) who ruled their town with threats, fights, and razor blades hidden in their flat caps.
Although there were real lawless gangs of the type depicted in the series in 1919’s Birmingham, the family is fictional – although the race-fixer, strutting Billy Kimber, is based on a real-life character of the same name. Steven Knight’s series was touted before its launch on BBC2 as ‘the British Boardwalk Empire’, and certainly in stylised cinematography and eclectic soundtrack (mainly Nick Cave), it was fresh and very different to anything we have seen on British television for a while.