Richard Blackwood in Typical – review

Richard Blackwood exceptional in Typical


★★★★★

Richard Blackwood in Typical. Photo: Franklyn Rogers

Typical offers us a day in the life of an ordinary man, a typical man, but the question is, is he a typical black man?

He gets up and gets dressed. He’s looking forward to the weekend, when he’ll see his boys. He fancies a night out so he goes to a disco. By the end he’s dying in a police station. Not so typical, but in Ryan Calais Cameron‘s play, ‘typical’ has many meanings and one is when they stereotype a black man .

It’s a one-man play and a huge burden is placed on the Richard Blackwood’s shoulders. There’s no set. He mimes, he mimics other characters, he speaks constantly in a stream of consciousness. The good news is that Mr Blackwood doesn’t give a typical performance, what he does is exceptional in the extreme.

Ryan Calais Cameron has written a poetic drama and Mr Blackwood is right on top of the rhythm of it. There’s a real love of language here, and there are joyful plays on words that he effortlessly gets his tongue round. For example, he talks of ‘sleep in the corner of the cornea’. He says, ‘Look here, I cook here, don’t need no damn book here’ and ‘I want to be inside the rave raving, instead of outside the rave, ranting and raving’.

There are many funny moments, especially when Richard Blackwood mimics the people he encounters. I laughed out loud as he confronted a police officer. The officer is saying, ‘Do you want to come to the station’. Our guy is saying ‘Do you want to take my statement’ and the two begin interrupting as each tries to have his say. Do you want to.. Do you.. in swift repartee,  as all the while the tension rises.

Anastasia Osei-Kuffour directed the original play at the Soho Theatre and this screen version is filmed there so it retains a sense of theatre while making good use of close ups and quick cutting to different camera angles.

Our protagonist is quite an ordinary man but also very likeable. He can look after himself but he avoids trouble.  When he experiences typical everyday racism, systemic racism if you like, he doesn’t rise to it, he even questions whether there is racist intent. Is the doorman making him wait because he’s black or simply because the place is full.

He still doesn’t avoid a serious racist attack. In the hospital a head injury has left him confused but the staff and police see what they want to see- a typical man- perhaps a typical black man- on drugs or drunk and frighteningly aggressive. The meaning of ‘typical’ moves from ‘everyday’ to ‘predictable’ to ‘expected’.

Once he’s arrested, the police beat him in the van. It is perhaps typical racist police behaviour or at least it’s nothing like as rare as it should be. The depictions of the beatings invite a visceral response, again all mimed by Mr Blackwood..

The police let him die. We see him die, before our eyes in deep close up, choking on his own blood,. It is shocking, horrific and deeply upsetting.

This is an imagined version of what happened, not to a typical black person but an actual man Christopher Alder in 1999. The last minutes of his life were recorded on CCTV at the police station. It led to a verdict of unlawful killing and an apology from the police force but no one was punished. It’s part of a pattern that sees a disproportionate number of black people stopped and searched, arrested, and dying in custody.

While that is important and Typical rightly brings attention to this outrage, it is important to say that this is a  well acted, well constructed drama that uses language, humour and emotional empathy, to make us feel the pain of one man’s tragic end.

Typical is available to stream on demand from sohotheatreondemand  

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Groomed by Patrick Sandford – review

An important play about the lasting damage of child abuse

★★★★★

Patrick Sandford in Groomed

‘The adult tries so hard to forget, but the child always remembers,’ says the protagonist in Groomed, written and acted by Patrick Sandford.  I am sure you will be as sad and angry as I was by the end of this 50-minute monologue about the abuse suffered by a 10-year-old child and the reverberating effect on the rest of his life. Its exceptional impact is a tribute to the former Artistic Director of the Nuffield Southampton.

Although written for the stage, this is a filmed version directed by Nancy Meckler. As with Andrew Scott in Sea Wall, having one person talking directly to you through the camera seems to me to come closest to the experience of theatre. The film also takes the opportunity to place our protagonist in a primary school classroom, the scene of the crime if you like.

Patrick Sandford takes us on a giddying ride. He tells us stories- stories from the ancient classics, a history of the saxophone, the story of the Japanese soldier who carried on fighting for 29 years after World War 2 ended, all providing metaphors for this protagonist’s experience and how it can be faced. He plays parts, even taking us a little way inside the mind of the abuser.

Most heartbreaking is the gradual revelation of the damage that the experience has inflicted on the adult. The fear, the shame, the guilt: ‘the bad done to me becomes the bad in me becomes the bad is me.’

It made me want to hug him

Like a tide that goes out and comes in again, we keep returning to the child and his awful experience at the hands of his teacher.  There are no details- he is very clear that this isn’t fodder for sensational tabloids. The shock is not in what happened but how it happened, and how the grooming was allowed to happen, and how there were apparently no consequences for the teacher.

It’s so upsetting that this should happen to a fellow human being that you almost want to block it out, just as you now might want to avoid seeing this play, but Patrick Sandford stares at you, defying you, both in his words and in his piercing eyes, to look away.

And there is hope in talking about it: ‘Rage that is heard transforms to mighty trees’ he says and talks of ‘the alchemy of anger into trust’.

I understand now much more now than I did about the way in which the experience of abuse is never something historical, but rather something ever present in the life of someone who was abused. So it is educational. However Groomed is so successful as a drama because Patrick understands the power of theatre as a cathartic experience and the way it can elicit empathy as well as sympathy. ‘Open my heart for me,’ he implores. Even in these times of social distancing, it made me want to hug him.

Groomed is available on sohotheatreondemand.com until the end of August 2020

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

 

 

Fleabag stage show online – review

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterclass in scriptwriting and acting

★★★★★

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Photo: Matt Humphrey

Last year Phoebe Waller-Bridge performed her original stage show Fleabag for the last time. Now she has generously made the NTLive recording available on demand online with the proceeds going to charity

This is the show that was first seen at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 and which led to the two incredibly successful TV series.

First thing to say, the quality of this film is excellent, at least on the TV I saw it on. The performance takes place entirely centre stage where Phoebe Waller-Bridge sits on a chair, only occasionally standing up. She is picked out by lights and all around her is an inky blackness that fills three quarters of the screen.

It’s an apparently simple design by Holly Pigott but the suggestion of isolation and that this person is on the edge of a dark emptiness is hugely effective. And the film doesn’t mess with this. In fact, this has got to be as good as it gets if you’re not actually there, because it’s like a front row seat, it may even be better than being there.

What we get is the full impact of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s excellent acting because she has to mime some of her past activities such as taking a photo in a toilet of her vagina and does impressions, for example imitating a guinea pig or pursing her lips like her rodent-mouthed lover. Her clipped plummy voice is gorgeous to listen to and offers a contrast to the earthy descriptions that come out of it, masturbating to Pornhub for example.

Because we’re all so familiar with the TV series, there is little to surprise or shock us now in the way that her explicit language and her casual even cynical attitude to sex must have done when this first hit the stage. The story contains many of the elements of the first series: the suicide of her best friend, her own guilt, her cold sister and her sister’s lecherous husband, the guinea pig-themed coffee shop and so on. But it’s different because it is a monologue and therefore incredibly intense.

I did notice that the Fleabag character is harder edged than on TV where she reveals more tenderness and good intentions even if they are usually misinterpreted.

Assuming you’ve seen the TV series, there isn’t the surprise revelation of why she is so depressed, why she has such a low sense of worth, and why she’s obsessed with sex, so often involving being abused, but the gradual revelation- in throwaway lines- still packs a ‘what did she say?’ punch. It is a master class in constructing and writing a script.

One of the great qualities of the writing in both this play and the subsequent TV series is the way it leads us into laughing at things that are quite shocking or reprehensible and then pulls the rug from under us for laughing- or vice versa. Because there is so much sadness in the midst of the comedy. ‘People make mistakes’ she says wistfully.

Although it’s a one-woman show, we shouldn’t underestimate the contribution of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s long time collaborator and in this case director Vicky Jones and the subtle mood lighting by Elliott Griggs and the often  graphic sound effects by Isobel Waller-Bridge that accompany the monologue.

You can see Fleabag on the sohotheatreondemand.com website until the end of May 2020 and on Amazon Prime. It will also be available to audiences in some other countries as well as on Amazon Prime in the US from 10 April for two weeks. In the UK, it costs £4.00 to watch, although you can choose to pay more and all proceeds will go towards the National Emergencies Trust, NHS Charities Together and Acting for Others, which supports theatre workers in times of need, and also towards grants of £2,500 to freelancers working in the UK theatre industry.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Touch by Vicky Jones at Soho Theatre

Amy Morgan and Edward Bluemel in Touch, written and directed by Vicky Jones at Soho Theatre. Photo: ©Tristram Kenton

Funny Bone Not Touched by Touch

[usr 3]

Touch is said to be a sex comedy from the creators of Fleabag. There’s not much sex, it’s not that funny and it’s no Fleabag.

People often find turning thirty difficult. Touch written and directed by Vicky Jones is about Dee, a woman who’s reached that dangerous age and has found her provincial life so restricted that she has moved to the anonymity of London and embarked on a voyage of sexual libertion.

For a play ostensibly about sex, there is very little actual sex: no nudity, hardly any simulated sex and not even descriptions. Take spanking. Our protagonist wants to try it but we never see the act and later when she says she enjoyed it, we get no detail of what she felt.  Clearly not a play for the prurient then.

The much publicised association with Fleabag (“From the creators of the international cult hit Fleabag”) made me long for the kind of detail that made that TV show so real. Who can forget the opening of the first episode when her willingness to take part in a ‘taboo’ act and then her concern about the implications made it one of the funniest and at the same time filthiest three minutes in TV sitcom history?

Writer Vicky Jones is an excellent director

Much of the dialogue with Dee’s lovers is instead about relationships and an analysis of her motives, leading me to think this play is using sex and potentially ‘shocking’ references to sexual practices to smuggle in a story about a woman seeking liberation, a liberation that is ultimately gained not by using people for sex but by being loved.

Vicky Jones also directs and here she is on more solid ground. The messy bedsit with its broken toilet reflects the chaotic and dysfunctional nature of her life and there’s considerable humour in the cast constantly reacting to and navigating around it. The timing and physical comedy are excellent.

The problem is, the script isn’t funny enough. Amusing, yes, but sex and relationships are such fertile ground for comedy. Despite some laugh-out-loud moments, I was surprised to find there were long periods when I didn’t even smile.

Fine acting from Amy Morgan

I think Vicky Jones should have taken more time to develop her main character who for me remained too one dimensional. Perhaps the link with Fleabag, which started as a play, made me think I was was being used as an audience for a pilot for TV sitcom. I did feel that Touch would have worked much better if each encounter were a half hour episode in which we could really get to know and understand our hero.

That said, Amy Morgan is a fine comic actor and all the others gave good support. Edward Bluemel in particular excelled as an overconfident teenager and James Clyde was very droll as the older roué.

It’s good to see a play about a youngish woman who is defining herself rather than allowing herself to be defined by others, I just wish Touch had touched me more.

A version of this review has appeared on Paul’s marketing website Seven Experience and on the Daily Echo website