SS Mendi: Dancing The Death Drill – Isango Ensemble – Nuffield Southampton Theatres

Isango Ensemble’s SS Mendi is Powerful Theatre

(4 / 5)

Watch the YouTube review on One Minute Theatre Reviews

Production photo of Isango Ensemble in SS Mendi Dancing The Death Drill at Nuffield Southampton Theatres
Isango Ensemble in SS Mendi Dancing The Death Drill at Nuffield Southampton Theatres

As shocking fact is laid upon shocking fact, it becomes hard to judge SS Mendi- Dancing The Drill Of Death as a piece of theatre, such is one’s outrage at how the British behaved towards black people from the Empire a hundred years ago. But Isango Ensemble have created a powerful musical to tell the human story behind the appalling facts .

Directed by Mark Darnford-May, SS Mendi is about the last voyage of a ship that transported black South African men to support British troops against the German army.

They see themselves as warriors going to fight but actually they will be digging trenches because one of the many appalling things we hear is that the black man is not allowed to raise his hand against the white man- even the German enemy.

The ship is sunk in an accident off the English coast and over 600 dead black South Africans become, as far as Britain is concerned, a footnote to the history of world war one. Until now.

The brilliant Isango Ensemble from South Africa bring to life what is actually an uplifting tale of the life of the people sailing to their doom. It’s a great piece of storytelling that could only happen in theatre.

This is physical theatre at its best, relying entirely on the performers. It’s a mixed gender company but it’s all about the acting so women take on male roles. On a bare stage with minimal props, they talk, sing, mime, play music. They tell individual stories with humour and compassion; they celebrate the men’s pride and humanity; they move fluidly together to provide a physical metaphor for their community as well as for the sea and the ultimate tragedy.

There were moments when some of the co-ordinated movement could have been tighter and some of the voices stronger but I don’t want to quibble in such an excellent production.

Production photo of Isango Ensemble in SS Mendi Dancing The Death Drill
Isango Ensemble in SS Mendi Dancing The Death Drill at Nuffield Theatre Southampton

The terrible patronising racism is there almost from the start when, as the men are recruited, they are given British names to replace their real names. Although the colonial white racism is appalling, SS Mendi does make clear that, there was class and racism among all of humanity as well as a specific British white racism a hundred years ago. The white officer in charge himself faces class prejudice. The black South Africans are prejudiced against each other’s tribes and some initially won’t have anything to do with mixed race person they call a ‘half breed’. So it is more nuanced than a simple attack on British racism.

Despite the horrors, there was humour. I liked the interspersing of traditional British songs into the South African music which was terrific by the way- at times joyous, at others haunting.

Not all the attempts at humour work. Just prior to the sinking, a performer comes on stage with a fog machine. It’s one thing to want us to stand back and understand this is a story being told but that intervention did strike a false note.

I would have liked the play to have been a little longer so that more time could have been spent looking at the lives of these individuals chosen to represent the 600 dead, to give us more chance to connect which would have made the tragic outcome even more poignant.

But it’s a story worth telling and Isango Ensemble use the full power of theatre to tell it. I congratulate Nuffield Theatres Southampton on them to Britain to mount this important production.

SS Mendi: Dancing The Death Drill is performing at NST City until 14 July

Watch the youTube review of  SS Mendi: Dancing The Death Drill on the channel One Minute Theatre Reviews-

One Minute Theatre Reviews Podcast April 2018

[podcast src=”https://html5-player.libsyn.com/embed/episode/id/6454122/height/360/width/450/theme/standard/autonext/no/thumbnail/yes/autoplay/no/preload/no/no_addthis/no/direction/forward/” height=”360″ width=”450″ placement=”top” theme=”standard”]April 2018: Reviews of Carey Mulligan in Girls & Boys at Royal Court Theatre, Rufus Norris’ Macbeth at the National Theatre with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, and A Streetcar Named Desire at Nuffield Southampton Theatre. Plus the seven best theatre shows opening this month.

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A Streetcar Named Desire at Nuffield Southampton Theatre City

Imaginative take on a 20th century classic

(3 / 5)

Click here to see my review of A Streetcar Named Desire on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Kelly Gough in A Streetcar Named Desire at Nuffield Theatre Southampton
Kelly Gough in A Streetcar Named Desire at Nuffield Theatre Southampton. Photo: The Other Richard

Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century. Chelsea Walker’s production at Nuffield Theatre’s City venue does it justice in many respects.

The cast convey the unspoken as well as spoken relationships very well. Kelly Gough gives a visceral performance as the central character Blanche Dubois who comes to stay with her physically abused sister Stella and macho brother-in-law Stanley, and whose superior behaviour and secret past create a charged atmosphere destined to explode. She’s hyperactive, nervous, fragile. You feel at any moment she could break into a thousand pieces, like the various objects during the production which do just that. A watermelon being one example.

Chelsea Walker has added many more visual metaphors, including some nicely done dance sequences, to underline what’s happening in the characters’ heads. One metaphor at the end by which the set becomes symbolic of Blanche’s state of mind and her separation from the other characters works really well.

There is a realistic lovemaking scene in which Stanley pleasures Stella. This has the effect of heightening the strong sexual atmosphere, as well as showing explicitly what the text only suggests, that one reason why she stays with this bully is that he satisfies her physically.

Chelsea Walker’s production sizzles with ideas

The production sizzles with ideas but there were times when I felt this talented director was trying too hard. For example, she’s given the play a contemporary setting.  It’s true that the themes of being an outsider, domestic violence, masculinity and power, and more remain relevant to our times but by moving it to our times, many anachronisms are created.

For example, talk of sending a wire when one would send a text or of workclothes when a character is wearing a leisure outfit. This wouldn’t matter if the modern setting provided new insights but I’m not convinced it did.

Cast of A Streetcar Named Desire at Nuffield Southampton Theatre
A Streetcar Named Desire at Nuffield Southampton Theatre. Photo: The Other Richard

Patrick Knowles resisted the temptation to overplay Stanley, allowing Blanche’s character to dominate the play, as she should. He managed to convey the arrogance and insecurity of a macho  man who imagines himself a ‘king’. He could perhaps have displayed more sexual swagger for a man who defines himself by his masculinity.

One thing missing was the oppressive atmosphere we expect in A Streetcar Named Desire. Georgina Lowe’s clever set, although appropriately restricted in its dimensions, has an open frame-like structure made more open by all the space of the Nuffield’s new auditorium around it. (I suspect it will work better in more intimate venues.)

The actors rarely behaved like they were weighed down by the heat and humidity of a New Orleans summer.

These caveats aside, I thoroughly recommend A Streetcar Named Desire either at the Nuffield or during its tour.

A Streetcar Named Desire performs at the Nuffield Theatres Southampton City until 31 March 2018 then tours  to Keswick (3 – 7 Apr), Malvern (10 – 14 Apr), Bristol (17  – 21), Ipswich (24 – 28 Apr), Cambridge (1 – 5 May), Oxford (8 – 12 May) and Mold (15 May – 2 June), returning to the Nuffield 5 – 16 June.

Here’s my YouTube review

One Minute Theatre Reviews Podcast March 2018

March 2018: Reviews of Howard Brenton’s The Shadow Factory with Anita Dobson at the new Nuffield Southampton Theatres city centre space and J K Rowling’s Harry Potter And The Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre London. Plus my selection of the best theatre shows opening or going on sale in March.

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The Shadow Factory – Nuffield Theatre

Howard Brenton’s play is an inspired choice to launch the new Nuffield

(4 / 5)

Click here to see the review of The Shadow Factory on YouTube

Production shot from The Shadow Factory y Howard Brenton at Nuffield Theatre
The Shadow Factory by Howard Brenton at Nuffield Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Howard Brenton is an inspired choice to launch the Nuffield Southampton’s new theatre. His latest play The Shadow Factory is not only about the city in the second world war, it fills the large space.

The imaginative set has been created by the group of artists called 59 Productions whose impressive pedigree includes video work on War Horse and An American In Paris. Virtually the only elements of the set are tubular lights above that bend and move to recreate brilliantly the sense of planes overhead and maps projected on the floor of the thrust stage to show not only scene locations but the targets of German bombs. Combined with amazing surround sound, the feeling of being under air attack made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

One of Luftwaffe’s targets is Woolston, Southampton, home of the main factory producing Spitfires. After this is blown up, production switches to multiple locations around the area- the shadow factory of the title.

And this is where it gets interesting. The British government, once at war, committed itself to full-on war without mercy or conscience.  In The Shadow Factory, we see them requisitioning property, specifically a local laundry business and a country house, with no care for the owners.

Anita Dobson & David Birrell lead an excellent cast

The central characters are there to give a human face to the story but, I suspect, not meant to distract us from it by tugging at the heartstrings.  Even so, the excellent cast do bring them to life. Special mention here for Anita Dobson and David Birrell playing two vivid characters each.

Dobson is both the laid back, generous aristocratic American Lady Cooper and the indefatigable, humorous grandmother Ma. Both of Birrell’s characters oppose the government in their different ways: Fred Dimmock, the rebellious laundry owner, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding who is too gentlemanly for modern warfare.

The cast are uniformly good. Catherine Cusack also doubles up: Lil Dimmock is on the edge of a breakdown and Sylvia Meinster whose propriety isn’t enough to overcome a foreign name. Lorna Fitzgerald (Jackie) and Shala Nyx (Polly) played two of the numerous strong women in this play who face up to the horrors of war and make their mark. It was a pleasure to see Hilton McCrae take the part of the ruthless charmer Beaverbrook. Daniel York is splendid as the conflicted Len Gooch, likeable local factory manager and reluctant tool of the government.

A chorus of local people appear regularly and, by the device of singing together, create a strong sense of community in the face of German bombardment and government dictatorship.

Sam Hodges’ production of The Shadow Factory hits the target.

The Shadow Factory can be seen at Nuffield Theatre Southampton until 3 March.

Here’s my review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews-

A version of this review has appeared on the Southern Daily Echo website

My February 2018 Theatre Picks

February is a busy month for new shows in London with big names. 

Production shot of Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Long Day's Journey Into Night
Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville star in Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night at Wyndham’s from 27 January for 10 weeks only. First seen at Bristol old Vic. More than one reviewer noted the exhilaratingly fast pace of this production directed by Richard Eyre. The Tyrone family positively hurtle toward their destruction.

Rufus Norris directs Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in Macbeth at National Theatre from 26 February to 12 May.

Carey Mulligan is in the one woman play Girls And Boys by Dennis Kelly at the Royal Court from 8 February to 17 March. It’s already sold out but try for Monday tickets.

Frozen at Theatre Royal Haymarket is Bryony Lavery’s thriller about a missing girl, not the Disney film. Suranne Jones and Jason Watkins star. It opens on 9 February for 12 weeks.

On the London fringe, The B*eats written by and starring the excellent Monica Dolan was well reviewed at Edinburgh Festival and can now be seen at Bush Theatre from 12 February. It’s a comedy drama (dramedy, anybody?) about the sexualisation of children.

Another Edinburgh hit opens at Soho Theatre: Dust, penned and performed by Milly Thomas, imagines a woman committing suicide and then be forced to watch the aftermath.

Outside London, the big event is the opening of the Nuffield Theatre Southampton’s new city centre space on 7 February launched with a new play The Shadow Factory by Howard Brenton.

The tour of This House by James Graham begins at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds from 23 February and then moves to Cambridge, Bath, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Birmingham, Salford, Plymouth, Norwich, Great Malvern, Guildford and Sheffield. Read my review of This House here.

 

Pick of 2018 Theatre Shows

Promotional image of Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in Macbeth at National Theatre London
Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear in Macbeth at National Theatre. Photo: Jack Davison

I had a great year of theatre going in 2017. My best evening out was at the Soho Theatre where I saw Mr Swallow in Houdini. It was an hour of continuous laughter at its cleverness, clowning and sheer madness.

As for actual comedy drama, I really enjoyed The Lie by Florian Zeller at The Menier and James Graham’s Labour Of Love with Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig but outstanding for me was the revival of Joe Orton’s Loot at Park Theatre and The Watermill Newbury (where I saw it), now uncensored and funnier than ever.

The best musical I saw, Follies and An American In Paris notwithstanding, was On The Town at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre.

The best drama was the revival of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf with Imelda Staunton. In fact there were many great acting performances this year- I’d also pick out Imelda Staunton again in Follies and Robert Lindsay in Prism but the crown must go to Ian McKellen as King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Looking forward to 2018

If 2017 was a good year, 2018 looks like being even better. There are so many wonderful prospects that it’s going to be very hard for we theatre lovers to choose what to see. Here’s my choice.

And straightway I’m having to choose between two productions of Macbeth. My money’s on Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff at the National Theatre (26 February – 12 May) but there’s no denying the  prospect of Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack performing for the Royal Shakespeare Company (13 March – 18 September) in Stratford is hard to resist.

Promotional image of Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change at Hampstead Theatre
Sharon D Clarke in Caroline, Or Change at Hampstead Theatre

There are some fabulous musicals on their way. Tony (Angels In America) Kushner’s Caroline, or Change with Sharon D Clarke was rapturously received in Chichester. In 2018, it reappears in the lovely Hampstead Theatre (12 March – 21 April). Strictly Ballroom The Musical which I saw and loved a year ago at West Yorkshire Playhouse gets a well deserved London run at the Piccadilly Theatre (29 March – 21 July). The emotionally charged winner of five Tony Awards, Fun Home has its UK premiere at Young Vic (18 June – 1 September).

There’s a star studded production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party appropriately at the Harold Pinter Theatre (9 January – 14 April). When I say starstudded, the cast includes Toby Jones, Zoe Wannamaker and Stephen Mangan to name but three.

Promotional image of Carey Mulligan in Girls And Boys at Royal Court
Carey Mulligan in Girls And Boys at Royal Court

I thought Carey Mulligan was wonderful in Skylight so I’m looking forward to her return to the West End in a one woman play by Dennis Kelly called Girls And Boys which describes the unravelling of a relationship. That’s at the Royal Court (8 February – 17 March).

Alfred Molina reprises his 2009 success playing the painter Mark Rothko in Red at the Wyndham’s Theatre (4 May – 28 July). It will again be directed by Michael Grandage and will also star Alfred Enoch.

Near to where I live, Nuffield Southampton Theatres open their exciting city centre space with a new play by local lad Howard Brenton. The Shadow Factory looking at Southampton in the Second World War runs from 7 February to 3 March.

Happy theatregoing!