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-

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

March 2018 Theatre Picks

Photo of Nuffield Theatre new city centre building in Southampton
Nuffield Theatre Southampton

If you want to experience the Nuffield Theatre’s new Southampton city centre space, their second production is Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire. It runs from 23rd to 31st March before touring to Keswick, Malvern, Bristol, Ipswich, Cambridge, Oxford, Mold and finishing where it started at the Nuffield.

Ambition, political scandal, ruthlessness… and the race for the White House. It’s the UK premiere of Gore Vidal’s political drama The Best Man about two contrasting Democratic candidates seeking the approval of the incumbent president. Martin Shaw leads a star studded cast including Maureen Lipman, Jack Shepherd, Honeysuckle Weeks and Glynis Barber. It was written in 1960 so it’s not about recent presidential candidates- but it could be. The Best Man opens at The Playhouse on 5 March.

There are a lot of productions of Macbeth around including one at Stratford. I’m opting for the one at the National Theatre. It stars Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear as the ruthlessly ambitious power couple whose relationship comes under pressure as the body count mounts. Shakespeare’s rollercoaster tragedy is directed by Rufus Norris and opens on March 6th.

Caroline, or Change, which was a big hit at Chichester last year, has finally found a London home. Hampstead Theatre plays host to the musical set in Louisiana in 1963. The civil rights movement is rising elsewhere but things seem much the same in the Gellman household, or do they? Caroline, or Change opens on 19 March.

The wonderful Menier Chocolate Factory’s latest show is Kiss Of The Spiderwoman, a provocative tale of love, victimisation, fantasy and the friendship that develops between two very different men imprisoned together in a Latin American jail. Previews begin on 8 March.

Photo of Lulu announcing appearance in 42nd Street at Theatre Royal Drury Lane London
Lulu coming soon in 42nd Street

42nd Street at Theatre Royal Drury Lane was the big winner at the What’s On Stage awards. There’s a new cast from 19 March featuring Lulu, back in the West End after 30 years.

There’s an unexpected world premiere at Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio. It’s by Harley Granville Barker. Granville Barker was one of the theatrical greats of the early 20th century, an actor, a director and the author of The Voysey Inheritance and Waste. But he died in 1946. So what’s the story? It seems a comedy by him has been found among his papers and will receive its first performance in a production directed by Trevor Nunn. Agnes Colander opens on 15 March.

Booking Opens In March

Talking of world premieres, a new Alan Bennett play is always an exciting event. Allejujah!, directed by Nicholas Hytner, begins at the Bridge Theatre on 11 July and runs until 28 September. Public booking opens on 2 March.

In the next booking period of the National Theatre, you’ll find such wonders as Brian Friel’s Translations and Strindberg’s Miss Julie brought into the present day and called simply Julie. Perhaps most exciting of all, Sam Mendes will be directing Simon Russell BealeAdam Godley and Ben Miles in The Lehman Trilogy which tells the story of the financial institution Lehman Brothers from its humble immigrant beginnings to its bankruptcy 163 years later, triggering the greatest financial crisis in history. Public booking opens on 16 March.

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