It is always a pleasure to visit Zédel, just a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus. A small all-day café on the ground floor conceals the stairs down to a grand art deco entertainment complex, comprising a Parisian-style brasserie, a stylish cocktail bar and a fairly unique music venue. The Crazy Coqs cabaret is capable of hosting a big sound for the small audience seated at the rows of cabaret tables (very well-serviced by an efficient team of waiting staff who keep the drinks flowing). And it has something for everyone: the management seemingly takes the generous view that all music genres deserve to be heard and enjoyed in this space.
This was the second visit here of Anne Steele, a New York-based singer-songwriter, on the occasion of launching her EP Made Out of Stars. Her huge personal and emotional investment in each of the songs – for which she takes inspiration from her own personal journey – was touching to hear her discuss and then whole-heartedly demonstrate in her powerful performance of them. It’s a privilege to hear an artist sharing, with a relatively intimate audience, her passion for music and life in general.
Exchange Theatre has a laudable mission: to bring foreign plays to an English-speaking audience. For this alone they deserve huge credit. And their attention to classics is equally important: there is so much more to enjoy than endless outings of Shakespeare (for all his merits) and British audiences need more opportunities to explore it.
In this production of Molière’s comedy of manners, they take their internationalising ambition a step further: it is performed by the same cast in French and English on alternate nights. While clearly eye-catching as an idea, and despite the significant casting challenges that this approach inevitably raises, it isn’t clear that the audience on a given day reaps the benefit of this. There are some nods to this uniqueness, but it would have been nice to have some more substantial linguistic cross-overs. Happily, however, the play still has a strong cast, who moreover seem to enjoy their parts tremendously. They are led by director David Furlong as Alceste (the misanthrope himself), who provides range, along with a good dose of tragi-comic humour.
Mountains of venerable leather-bound books greet the audience: neat, catalogued shelves on the right of the stage; disorderly piles on the left. And so the stage is set for a play of juxtapositions: man and woman; togetherness and solitude; Britain and America. It is only really this last cultural contrast which feels largely anachronistic (and no less amusing for it) at today’s distance from the story’s post-war setting.
Across hundreds of letters and a remarkable 20-year period and, a bond of deep friendship organically develops from a transactional business relationship between an antiquarian London bookseller, Frank Doel (Clive Francis), and his New Yorker client, writer Helene Hanff (Stephanie Powers). Other characters, primarily belonging to Frank’s world, come and go, but this true story is inescapably an epistolary dialogue, and Roose-Evans’ play whole-heartedly embraces that format.
The daily headlines alone provide fertile enough material for a critique of rising populism. But Robert Schenkkan’s play forces us to look up from the daily news drip feed and reflect on where an unchecked Trumpism could lead. Not in a far-off, technologically-facilitated dystopia, but as near as next month or next year.
Rick (Trevor White) is being held in solitary confinement awaiting sentencing for… one isn’t quite sure – but it’s clearly not a minor misdemeanour. Academic psychologist Gloria (Angela Griffin) has obtained permission to interview him, with the hope of really understanding how events came to pass. As the play progresses, Rick opens up to Gloria’s questioning and the true horror of what ‘building the wall’ meant in practice is bit-by-bit uncovered. Relayed second-hand in this way, the contingent nature of reality in a world of ‘fake news’ is subtly teased out, and the audience is forced to consider the limits of what they can give imaginative credence to.
The dark side of 21st century globalism: a white Chicago teenager’s Facebook-facilitated conversion to radical Islam by a frontline ISIS fighter and subsequent indictment by a Muslim prosecutor. The writer’s (Selina Fillinger) choice of source material for Faceless can’t be said to lack inherent drama. But could a play do justice to the hyper-reality of this true story?
The new London home of this American production is the excellent Park Theatre’s smaller ‘Park 90’ studio space, and the suitably minimalist staging and makes good use of it.
The victim / would-be-terrorist Susie Glenn’s (Fiona Gent) extraordinary journey from finding faith and romance online to a solitary confinement cell in a federal jail is told through interactions with her defence lawyer (Sam Thorpe-Spinks) and recollections of the ‘faceless’ online manipulator. One of the most poignant moments is when she wants to discuss the Koran, rather than her plea bargain, with her prosecutor – who she reveals is the only Muslim she has actually met. Her ISIS seducer steers her away from the local mosque: her conversion is done by way of tweet. When she worries that there would be no witnesses, as is required, he tells her simply to add #ISIS – she’ll have many followers in no time at all!