Best Of Enemies at Young Vic – review

The best new play I’ve seen this year

★★★★★

David Harewood and Charles Edwards in Best Of Enemies by James Graham at the Young Vic in London.
David Harewood and Charles Edwards in Best Of Enemies at the Young Vic. Photo (c): Wasi Daniju

Best Of Enemies at the Young Vic is the best new play I’ve seen this year. James Graham’s writing is vivid, funny, and shocking. There are towring performances by the two leads David Harewood and Charles Edwards. And the production directed by Jeremy Herrin with a set by Bunny Christie is perfect.

Given the subject matter – the 1968 presidential election and in particular some televised debates between the influential conservative thinker William F Buckley and the liberal writer Gore Vidal – you might think Best Of Enemies is not for you, but you’d almost certainly be wrong. I know it sounds boring but believe me, in the hands of writer James Graham and director Jeremy Herrin, it becomes electrifying theatre.

Best Of Enemies may tell us a lot about the polarised society we live in today, but it does so in the form of a gripping entertainment that takes us inside the heads of two protagonists, narcissistic to the point of recklessness.

The play begins with the immediate aftermath of one of the later debates. There is anger and shock at language that has been used, although at that point we don’t know what’s been said or how it’s come to this. We then go back and see that the story began with ABC TV News, in a race for ratings, deciding to have well known intellectuals talking about the Presidential conventions, at which the Republican and Democratic candidates are elected.

This is about the corrupting influence of TV and there are three big screens high up at the back of the stage to remind what viewers are seeing, as well as showing us the studio control area. We see how the participants both take part because they see it as a way of promoting themselves. We then see over a series of debates how the confrontational format generates more heat than light.

We and they realise that how they come across is more important than what they say. Buckley’s wife Pat says: “That’s all this is. Who do I like the most?’ At the end, Vidal prophesies that this means that one day a candidate could get elected because he was more likeable rather than having the best policies. Don’t we know it?

Okay, that’s the bones of it but what James Graham has done is flesh that skeleton with bits of verbatim speech from the debates and lots of fictional dialogue that brings to life the two protagonists.

Electrifying performances by David Harewood and Charles Edwards

The two leads charge the production with electricity. David Harewood plays William F Buckley. You might be surprised that a Black actor is playing a right-winger whose whiteness was part of who he was, but a good actor inhabits the role. In this case, the role is of a man not comfortable in his own skin. Mr Harewood relishes the part, not only the external mannerisms, tics and lip licking and other nervous affectations, but also the inner person- the loneliness of the outsider, the devoted husband, the foundation of his beliefs, and the desperation to win. He does a remarkable job of making us feel sympathy for someone who could so easily be the villain, because of his racism and homophobia. When the first debates go badly for him under an onslaught from Vidal, I actually felt sorry for him. Then we see him planning to raise his game.

Charles Edwards conveys the smooth charm, razor wit, the insufferable superiority, obsession with power, and the vulnerability of Vidal. He was a patrician and his sense of superiority, while insufferable, helps him dominate those early debates. Then Buckley prepares better and starts to score points, and as Vidal squirms, so do we.

They are both intellectuals and they’re both narcissists. They want to win the debate so they can be more influential in the world of politics. Each of them is delighted when they’re recognised by leading politicians. They’re not portrayed as bad people, their extreme views seem to be more like an academic exercise than something from the heart, but they do have hearts and it’s their pride, and above all their desire to win that drives them from civilised conversation to conflict to playground name calling. Both seek out each other’s weaknesses, initially of their arguments but eventually personal ones, and you find yourself not wanting to look, as their feelings are exposed.

They live in ivory towers, not what most of the electorate would recognise as the real world. Obsessed by their personal dislike of each other, they don’t even anticipate the effect of their clashes on the world of politics, which is moving from compromise to polarisation. In the real world things fall apart.

Justina Kehinde in Best Of Enemies

We are shown something of what’s going on in that real world of 1968: Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King are assassinated; an extreme feminist shoots Andy Warhol; there are protests about the Vietnam War. Looking back, we see that this was the beginning of the end of consensus politics and the start of polarisation: Left v right, young v old, plus conflicts of gender, race and sexuality. And on the other hand, there’s the so-called silent majority which Presidential candidate Richard Nixon appealed to. So tempers are rising, creating a sense of a pressure cooker.

The set itself is a small open stage surrounded on three sides by audience, turning the protagonists into gladiators in an arena.

All the other actors are first class. Among them, there’s Clare Foster as Buckley’s cheerful wife Patricia, Syrus Lowe as the angry but expressive James Baldwin and John Hodgkinson who plays the chair of the debates, revelling in the viewing figures but out of control of the wild horse he is riding. It’s only a cast of ten but they take on many characters, all well delineated, so you might think there were twice as many actors. It seems like every one of the characters has a contribution to make and every line has something to say.

Under the direction of Jeremy Herrin, this production zings along. As with the Wolf Hall trilogy or James Graham’s This House, which he also directed, he uses movement to add a physical excitement to the dialogue. I like the way he and James Graham make politics exciting. Because politicians shape our country and it’s a crying shame we find them boring or see them reduced to personalities.

Why were they the ‘best’ of enemies? They needed one another and they’re really quite similar.

Best Of Enemies is performing at the Young Vic until 22 January 2022.  Performances will be streamed live on 20, 21, 22 January, 7.30pm, and 22 January 2.30pm GMT. Tickets from youngvic.org

Paul received a complimentary review ticket from the producers.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury at the Young Vic – review

Fairview: Powerful comedy about race

★★★★

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. Invited critics were asked not reveal twists but it’s impossible to review why this play is so powerful without saying how and why. I paid for my ticket so I feel free to discuss the whole play.

Production shot of Fairview at Young Vic featuring Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Rashan Stone & Nicola Hughes
Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Rashan Stone & Nicola Hughes in Fairview at Young Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner

‘What are you looking at?’ says the wife to the husband right at the beginning of Fairview at the Young Vic. And that really is the question. What are we looking at? The answer seems to be a well-off African-American family preparing for a special occasion. But there’s something not quite right. Is Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play going to be a family drama set around a dinner party with bickering, jealousy and secrets such as we’ve seen many times over the years? Or is this more like a pastiche of a US sitcom? The set, designed by Tom Scutt, is so bright and clean and detailed that it could be made for HD TV.

The characters are black, yes, which in our world of middle class theatre is unusual, so we may anticipate that race is going to figure. Then again, these are middle class people. Shut your eyes and the characters could be any colour: the wife Beverly played by Nicola Hughes with a perfect mix of bossiness, insecurity and affection, the playful husband Dayton played with a cheeky likeability by Rhashan Stone, Naana Agyei-Ampadu squeezing all the comedy she can from the fashion conscious, faddy sister Jasmine, the sensitive rebellious daughter Keisha played by Donna Banya, plus, off stage, the unreliable brother hoping for a partnership in his firm, the daughter’s friend and the mother who won’t come downstairs. All very amusing but fairly predictable archetypes.

There are peculiar moments in this first act that make you suspect there is more going on: the radio malfunctioning briefly, a tendency for the characters to break into dance, the daughter appearing in a spotlight to express her discomfort with the situation.

As if a brick wall has collapsed on you

Then we come to act two and everything changes. It’s as if a brick wall has collapsed on you. From here on in, we are in no doubt this is about race and we are looking at what it means to be black: the white gaze, the stereotypes, the cultural appropriation. Not that Jackie Sibblies Drury presents a simple lecture. Fairview is subtle comedy with many layers, presented with a unique theatricality and directed with flair by Nadia Latif. The twists are jaw dropping and lead you to question what happened in the first act and who these people are. So please don’t read any more if you don’t want to spoil those dizzying surprises.

WARNING: SPOILERS

Act two repeats act one but this time it’s acted out silently while the radio- maybe the radio- provides a commentary from four white people. Who are they? They could be the creators of the characters we are seeing or they could be simply ciphers for the white gaze. Anyway they digress into a discussion about what race they would like to be, each time coming up with stereotypical views of those races, ending with black, where they conclude they wouldn’t want to be the kind of middle class black people we are viewing because they are boring. It’s poor black people who are interesting- the rappers, the loud mamas. The voice who would like to be black remembers her black maid.

This does go on a bit but then there’s a delightful moment when the characters on stage, previously unsynchronised, segue into apparently mouthing what the voices are saying, even though we can remember that this wasn’t the dialogue from the first act. So, in a way, the characters come together in a prelude to the third act.

An uncomfortable evening for those ‘identifying as white’

Because, if that wasn’t enough, we then pick up story of the family and it’s not long before the characters we previously heard talking decide to come on to the stage to spice up this middle class family with black characters who are more ‘interesting’. So the missing brother appears as a rapper, although his sister is still asking how the partnership is going. The mother appears twice, once as the remembered black maid, a history Beverley contradicts. The white people confuse, question and provoke the black people. The black people object to being told what they are. It all ends in an amazing food fight.

Then in a final coup, the daughter invites those in the audience ‘identifying as white’ to come up on stage and see what it feels like to be in the spotlight. To not be ‘normal’, but instead to be focussed upon, expected to perform in a certain way, simply because of the colour of your skin. The actors leave the stage; many of the audience climb on to the stage including me. I’m uncomfortable with defining myself by race but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see the view from the stage.

It was an interesting experience. The lights are blinding. You can’t see the audience (or what’s left of it). You go from being an anonymous member of that audience to being the focus of attention. I tend to think that theatre is about letting you into other people’s lives or letting us see ourselves in different ways but this really took it from an intellectual exercise to a physical one.

Because Fairview is an American play, it wasn’t as much a punch in the guts for me as it clearly was to audiences when it first performed in the US where there is a history of slavery and segregation. Black people in this country have been and are subject to racial prejudice but they have never been divided from the white population. It would be much harder to write a play which involved stereotyping a black British culture.

A subtle layered comedy

Not that Jackie Sibblies Drury presents a lecture about racist stereotypes and cultural appropriation, except right at the end. If she did, I might be saying that she wasn’t telling us much we didn’t know already. Instead she starts with a middle class family, and thereby acknowledges that education and money are levellers. She subtly shows that even they are aware of what is expected of them which manifests as what you might call watered down stereotypes, a tendency to break into dance for example. She also presents the white people as stereotypes (the camp gay man springs to mind) which suggests that Fairview is not only about race.

I took from the evening a strong plea to take individual people as you find them- with a fair view- rather than imposing preconceptions or prejudices. Anyone could be a victim of prejudice if they are in an underprivileged or weaker group.

That’s what I came away with but this is such a good play that I think people, depending on their backgrounds and prejudices, will have come away with many different reactions. Even if you see it and decide, as some critics did, that Fairview is divisive or outdated, you will come out thinking and talking about it long after the audience have left the stage.

Fairview can be seen at the Young Vic in London until 23 January 2020.

Click here to watch the review of Fairview on YouTube

Minor amendments made on 14 January 2020

Fun Home – Young Vic – review

Fun Home is a perfect musical

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Click here to see the YouTube review of Fun Home on One Minute Theatre Reviews

Production photo of Kaisa Hammarlund and cast in Fun Home at Young Vic
Kaisa Hammarlund and cast in Fun Home at Young Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner

Fun Home is a perfect musical- a joyous story driven by mystery and tragedy; songs with clever lyrics and catchy tunes that give an extra depth to the tale; characters you believe in and care about.

The musical is based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. We meet Alison as she’s in the process of creating her book. It’s an attempt to look back and understand how she tackled coming out and how her closet gay father came to commit suicide. As a song from early on says, ‘I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then.’

Although there is a central tragic event, this does not stop it being an uplifting evening.

Two younger versions of Alison take us through episodes of her life as today’s Alison narrates and comments. All the cast are tremendous singers and actors- Kaisa Hammarlund as the nervous narrator Alison, Eleanor Kane as the gauche teenage Alison and on the occasion  I saw it, Harriet Turnbull as the troubled small Alison, displaying a skill rare in an child actor.

Jenna Russell plays the suffering mother and Zubin Varla is tremendous as the complex father. There’s also great support from Ashley Samuels and Cherrelle Skeete.

Production photo of Fun Home at Young Vic London
Fun Home at Young Vic. Photo: Marc Brenner

The songs, composed by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics by Lisa Kron, are by turns  humorous, heartbreaking and, most importantly, totally integrated into the story. Perhaps it helps that Lisa Kron also wrote the book.

A quick word of praise for David Zinn’s clever set which is like an extension to the father’s character. It’s detailed when it needs to be, spins round as scenes change, and is bleak and blank at appropriate times. And there is a wow moment late on.

There’s a lightness and movement in director Sam Gold’s tender, funny production that give the still moments huge impact.

Fun Home is a touching look at the relationship between parent and child and a wonderful celebration of being true to yourself. It’s the kind of evening I always hope for when I go to the theatre.

Fun Home is performing at Young Vic until 1 September. Click here for the Young Vic website

Watch the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube review 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!

Yerma starring Billie Piper at Young Vic – Review

Billie Piper’s Performance Of A Lifetime

★★★★★

Yerma starring Billie Piper at the Young Vic reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
Yerma starring Billie Piper at the Young Vic. Photo: Johan Persson

I was worried that looking through the action at members of the audience in the opposite seats would be distracting. Fortunately there was no chance of that in the Young Vic production of Yerma, thanks to a riveting script by Simon Stone and a visceral performance by Billie Piper.

The traverse stage not only puts the audiences on two sides of the stage but designer Lizzie Clachan encases the acting area in glass. This means you are much more aware that you are part of an audience watching performers, as if in a goldfish bowl or on a catwalk fashion show. You feel you are examining what is being presented before you.

Simon Stone’s brilliant production

Before the play began, for a few moments it was difficult to tell whether you were seeing a reflection of yourself or different but very similar people in very similar seats. I fully expected the glass to fly out but it stayed in place. As a result, I felt I was looking at fish or lizards or some other animal trapped in a tank. This was enhanced by there being no exits for most of the performance (actors entered and exited between scenes under cover of darkness). Not to mention moments when Billie Piper fell against the glass and more.

Director and writer Simon Stone has updated the classic Lorca story cleverly. The central character is still a woman who wants a child but the emphasis has changed from her being pressured by Catholic society to her inability to fulfil her desire driving her to destruction. Billie Piper’s portrayal of a gradual descent from an intelligent, fun woman to someone driven mad by her inability to conceive left me shaking.

This is theatre at its best: a brilliant production serving the acting performance of a lifetime.

A version of this review has appeared on my website seven experience.co.uk

See my video review below or at One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube