Thursday, 27 May 2010

Review: The Stronger / Pariah, Arcola

I do like a one-act play. In its best incarnation, you are left wanting more, a theatrical amuse bouche that gives a taste of the potential of all those involved. In the worst-case scenario - well, you're only going to have to sit through 20 or 30 minutes before you can cleanse your palate with some cheap plonk at the bar. In the current Strindberg double bill at the Arcola, both of these experiences are on the menu.

The Stronger is deceptively simple. Two women - two actresses - meet in a coffee house on Christmas Eve. One talks, the other ... does not. At all. But although it may be a monologue, this is no soliloquy. While Mme X relies on her full verbal arsenal to express herself, Mlle Y communicates as fully with no more than a slow blink, a clenched jaw, a trembling lip; her sudden laugh at one point is shocking, not least for its unexpected volume. Both actors are stunningly good. Emma Clifford has all the poise and control of expression needed for a woman accused of adultery. Yolanda Vazquez as the voluble Mme X is at once triumphant and frantic, underscoring the uncertainty of who exactly 'the stronger' is by her need to fill Mlle Y's silence with something, anything. Juha Leppäjärvi's clean translation and Jane Bertish's direction successfully bring out the subtleties of Strindberg's tightly plotted scene.

From the sublime to the ridiculous(ly bad), all that is great about The Stronger throws into relief everything that is wrong with Pariah. For starters, I'm not convinced that it's as well written a piece as The Stronger. Where The Stronger lightly hints at what has gone on before, Pariah gets bogged down in details, in complicated back stories, in chests of gold. But matters are not helped by any aspect of the production. The acting is very weak in places and there are also some odd choices as well - whether in the translation or the direction, I'm not sure - such as omitting Mr Y reading a book from Mr X's shelf, a matter on which the whole plot rests. And as is always the way in these things, it is of course the longer of the two pieces. So on the whole, a delightful starter that is compromised by the unpleasant aftertaste left by the second half of the evening.

£14. I missed out on 'Pay What You Can Tuesday' at the Arcola at this one, and had to pay the full price for another night. In fairness, I'd have quite happily paid £10 for The Stronger alone, but £14 was a bit steep for an hour's worth of entertainment. Try for 'Play What You Can', if you can.

A free cast list.

Total Cost:

The Stronger / Pariah run at the Arcola from 24th May - 5th June 2010. To book tickets or for more information, visit or phone 020 75031646.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Ticket Offer: Madagascar, Theatre 503

A ticket offer with a catch, this one. Theatre 503 is trying to entice people to join their new Facebook fan page, and will provide a promo code when you do. In the spirit of their foray into online social networking, I'm not going to post it here, but you can go to their fan page, 'Like' it and find the code under the 'Boxes" tab. Clue: it's got something to do with Rome ...

This might feel like you're having to work hard for your money, but it is a good offer as well - as far as I can tell, it's £5 tickets for any date for their new play Madagascar, by JT Rogers.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Ticket Offer: Iram, Barbican

Apologies if it seems we're a bit Barbican heavy here at the minute, but there's another ticket offer from the people at bite, this time for Iram, playing in the Pit.

See the short stories of celebrated Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem reimagined for the stage by Ofira Henig and the Herzliya Ensemble for just £8 instead of £15 on Friday 21, Saturday 22 and Monday 24 May.

Book online using the promotional code 21510 to redeem the offer. For more information on the play, go to

Subject to availability.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Review: Peter Pan, Barbican

After Disney's bowdlerisation and years of pantomimes, it's easy to forget just how dark and weirdly sexual J. M. Barrie's original tale is. John Tiffany's production of David Grieg's adaptation works hard to restore some of the uncertainty and danger, although the real threat of awakening pubescent sexuality is still largely absent.

Transported from Edwardian Kensington to Victorian Edinburgh, the play opens on the Forth Rail Bridge. A small army of 'rivet boys' scramble over the structure and help in its construction, a real world counterpart to the Lost Boys of Neverland. The bridge is a not only a gateway to the Kingdom of Fife, but to Neverland, where the flipside of Laura Hopkins' beautiful set suggests tree branches, rigging, shipwrecked masts.

The parallels between the real and the imaginary are also reflected in doubling with Jaqui Zvimba and Zöe Hunter playing both Nana and Tiger Lilly. As the Darlings' canine nanny, Zvimba and Hunter operate a model dog while dressed as household servants. I liked the idea of the puppetry better than its execution, which was a little crude, but Zvimba and Hunter made an engaging pair to watch as the maligned Nana. As the dual Tiger Lily (Lillies?) however, the move from St Bernard to wolf princess proved a step too far, and the lupine antics didn't add much to the production.

As is also often done, Mr Darling becomes Captain Hook, but it is here that the production starts to get some teeth. No longer an unthreatening fop, Captain Hook, tattooed and kilted in black, is imbued with real menace by Cal MacAninch. He delivers Hook's humorous lines with the same venom as he slits throats and makes this hardened pirate becomes a believable nemesis to Peter Pan's youthful energy.

But what of Peter Pan? Similarly bare-chested and with tufted hair to suggest his faun god namesake, Kevin Guthrie is muscular yet boyish, able to change from carefree sprite to bitter cynic and back again in the blink of an eye. His entrance crawling downward along the pros arch instantly eradicates all thoughts of green tights and feathered caps and the aerial work and fight scenes are brilliantly choreographed. But for all the macho swaggering, this is a production that wants to have its cake and eat too - a physically attractive Peter Pan who provokes no sexual tension in Wendy Darling. This is not a criticism of Guthrie, who puts in a performance that far belies his years, or of Kirsty Mackay, who gives Wendy a refreshing kick up the backside and creates a gutsy proto-feminist who doesn't understand why people think girls can't fight. Instead, I think the problem lies with the director.

Like an awkward parent unwilling to have 'the talk', or at the very least, like a director not wanting to put the parents in the audience in that position, John Tiffany seems to have consciously directed the play to avoid any hint of physical attraction between Peter and Wendy. All talk of thimbles and kisses is excised from the Darling's nursery to be replaced by talk of Peter forbidding Wendy from ever touching him. Wendy, and the audience, are very firmly put in place from asking further questions.

This also occurs with the treatment of Tinkerbell. A large part of the tragedy of the story revolves around her unrequited love of Peter, and the murderous jealousy this provokes in her negligee-clad heart (read the original and you'll find it there). While undeniably beautiful, I'm not sure how well the fiery fairy worked as a literal flame. Quite how you would create a realistic pint-sized fairy femme fatale on stage is quite another matter, but I can't help thinking that a version that portrayed Tinkerbell as an aspect of Wendy's attraction to Peter would make for fascinating watching.

This rather Freudian interpretation of mine brings me rather neatly to Mrs Darling. Annie Grace is the real delight of the evening, operating not only as a fine actor but also singing the haunting 'Mother's Lament'. Kudos must be given to Davey Anderson and his brilliant music, incorporating sea shanties and Celtic lullabies that at once seemed familiar and fantastical. Indeed, Mrs Darling's initial recognition of Peter and subsequent reappearances in Neverland have a greater sense of longing than any of the scenes between Peter and Wendy, hinting at but never addressing the story's Oedipal undertones.

Uncertain of its audience then, this is a production which teeters on the cusp of childhood and adulthood but which never fully satisfies either. Not unlike Peter Pan himself

With the Facebook offer we posted last week, seats in the stalls that were normally £30 were made available for £6. One suspects that the show wasn't selling quite as well as the Barbican had hoped, but I was more than happy to take advantage of this and bring my other half.

Being in the stalls however, it was difficult not to get distracted by the corresponding ropework in the wings. I suspect that a seat further back, or even in the circle, might allow you to focus less on the strings attached and more on the bigger picture.


£9.50. Which isn't a bad night out at all. And which entirely justified us going to Pham Sushi before hand and devouring their menu (thoroughly recommend this as a pre-Barbican restaurant - best sushi in London).

Peter Pan plays at the Barbican until 29 May. Tickets £10-35. Visit or call 020 7638 8891 for more information.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Review: A Thousand Stars Explode In The Sky, Lyric Hammersmith

This was not a play, and therefore this is not a review. It is an abridged version which I believe is recommended reading for anybody considering going to see this play. Spoiler warning: there is nothing to spoil, but those who want to find that out for themselves, probably shouldn't read this.




(A Thousand Stars Explore in the Sky is far too exciting a title. It implies something happens)

by David Eldridge, Robert Holman and Simon Stephens

by Orion Hunt

William, James and Philip are brothers. Despite there being 50 years between all of them. William is dying of colon cancer, which is handy as the universe is ending. They talk about their estranged brothers, Edward and Jake. William wants James to bring them HOME TO MILL FARM.

Jake (estranged brother 1) is with his daughter Nicola, a druggie, and her son Roy, whom he has been raising. They talk. Jake thinks they should all go HOME TO MILL FARM. Nicola disagrees.

Philip is with Harriet, James's wife. They talk.
James arrives with Jenny the dog. This is momentarily quite exciting. They talk (not the dog - too exciting).
Harriet leaves to find cream tea. Philip and James talk. Harriet returns, thinking 5 minutes has passed. The men think over an hour has passed. It's anybody's guess really, but I'm inclined to think the men are right on this one. They talk about going HOME TO MILL FARM TWICKENHAM.

Philip and his mother Margaret wash William. Nobody talks much.

Jake, Roy and Nicola talk. She pulls out a tooth. This is less interesting than it sounds. She still doesn't want to go HOME TO MILL FARM. Roy is sad.

James manages to find Edward (estranged brother 2). James wants Edward to come HOME TO MILL FARM. He doesn't want to.

Jesus Christ, how many more until an interval? Oh no, wait, this scene might be interesting.
Philip holds his mother-as-a-baby while watching his dead grandmother Dorrity ( as in, if someone asked you what a book was like and you said, "Well, it's quite Little Dorrit-y") have extramarital sex with a refugee, Karl. Philip might be psychic, or time might be collapsing, or I might have dozed off and dreamt this.

Harriet comes in with Jenny's leash and tells James she just killed Jenny offstage with a claw hammer. That's the most watchable character gone then. They decide to go HOME TO MILL FARM.

INTERVAL: I try to drink as much as possible to numb the pain. Fifteen minutes is not enough.

Roy. Jake. Talk. Roy might be psychic. Or it might be the time-space thing. They're on a train going HOME TO MILL FARM. Read that last sentence again. Yes, that's right. It's the goddamn apocalypse, and British Rail, which can't manage when there are wet leaves on the track, is putting on extra services. Disbelief well and truly unsuspended.

Edward and Nicola. They talk. No one mentions going HOME TO MILL FARM. But Nicola does talk about seeing a man defecate on the perfume counter at Selfridge's before she killed him. Can't help thinking that would have made a better scene.

Philip and William talk. Over an electric fence (for some reason). William's a ghost so I'm guessing the cancer got him. The electric fence makes a spark and a bang. I jump.
Dorrity arrives. They talk.

It's a long one folks. Harriet and James have arrived HOME TO MILL FARM. They carry bowls and ask about carrots to show how it's a farm. William is definitely dead. They talk. Margaret shouts.
Jake and Roy arrive HOME TO MILL FARM. Now that nearly everyone has come HOME TO MILL FARM, they stop saying it so much.
Margaret is a bit of a cunt to Jake. Roy calls her a cunt. Totally called that before you.
I notice at this point I scrawled the note to my friend Hannah, "We're leaving at the curtain - NO CLAPPING".

Philip and Margaret. He comes out to her.

Philip. Roy. Talk.
Apparently, they both saw a Viking at William's funeral. They have also seen that Nicola has killed herself in Twickenham with a bottle of weedkiller. Again, can't help thinking this should be what we're seeing.

I look at my programme and thank you Mary, mother of God, it's the last scene.
Lots of light bulbs come down from the ceiling. Clearly they had the set left over from Spring Awakening. I start to hum 'Mama Who Bore Me'. Hannah shushes me.
Margaret, James, Harriet, Jake, Roy and Philip talk. Edward arrives HOME TO MILL FARM. On a penny farthing. No, really. He doesn't ride it though. Too exciting.
They talk. They eat some manchego and quince jam. They talk.
The light bulbs go bright.
The light bulbs go out.


And there we have it. Who knew the end of the world was so dull?

£10 for the front row. And I now owe Hannah my firstborn for bringing this abomination upon her.

If you're still reading this, and still thinking of going, then I hope you do buy the programme and I hope you get a thousand paper cuts all over your eye with it. But they're £3, since you asked.

A Thousand Stars Explode In The Sky runs from now until the universe ends.

Ticket Offer: Henry VIII, Shakespeare's Globe

Courtesy of Shakespeare's Globe, tickets for Henry VIII are now buy one get one free on all yard tickets for performances 17- 30 May (usual price £5). To make use of this offer, enter pcd241 when booking online.

For more information on the show, visit the Globe website.

Offer is subject to availability.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Review: Love The Sinner, National Theatre

In the spirit of Love The Sinner, I feel some confession is in order for this review: I used to be a gay Christian in my teenage years. No prizes for guessing which fell by the wayside. But despite having chosen the flesh over the spirit at some point, the issue of the Church and homosexuality still provokes a strong response from me. So I was aware that I could either come away loving or loathing this production purely on personal grounds, rather than judging it on its own merit. Thankfully – or not, as the case may be – this production left me feeling entirely underwhelmed.

This is a play that suffers from that common sin (sorry) in a lot of new writing: trying to tackle as many big issues as possible in the two or so hours traffic of the stage. Drew Pautz’s script flits around the conflict between spirituality and sexuality, HIV and Aids, the ethics of IVF, religion in the workplace, persecution in Africa, immigration, even humane pest control. Part of this, I think, is Pautz’s understandable desire to show that there are no clear answers to questions of conscience. But by spreading itself so thin, nothing is dealt with satisfactorily and the result is a superficial affair. The play opens with an international conference of bishops of the Church of England, where there proves to be as much variance over ordering coffee as debating theology. I imagine that this could be pretty turgid stuff for those not versed in doctrine, but nevertheless, the performances of Louis Mahoney as Paul and Nancy Crane as Hannah make this quite watchable. But before a decision has to be made, it’s quickly dropped, never to return.

Instead, the story moves to Michael, a church layman first seen silently transcribing the proceedings, but who emerges as the potential 'sinner' of the title, having had a sexual encounter with Joseph, a porter at the hotel. The awkwardness following a random dalliance is played well by Jonathan Cullen and Fiston Barek, who for the most part, cope quite well throughout with Pautz's erraric narrative.

But, as often happens to me with portrayals of gay sex, I’m afraid my brain kicked in to logistics mode around this point. Don't worry, it did the same thing in Brokeback Mountain (“Just spit? Really?”). Here, I was preoccupied with figuring out the mechanics of what had gone on between Michael and Joseph. Had Michael been wearing the t-shirt during sex (which would be odd given how hot it’s clearly meant to be and the fact that he’s in his own hotel room) or had he put it on post-coitus, despite it being covered in the, err, aftermath? These may seem trite observations, but it had the feel of something that hadn't been thought through. And by keeping what happened between the sheets between the acts, it’s difficult to get any sense of why Michael and Joseph continue to be drawn to one another. The case of the one-night stand that won’t go away is a trope that can be played for comic or tragic value, but here it vacillates between both. Ordinarily, I would approve of a director's decision to allow the two to jostle alongside one another, except in this case, the one night-stand is also used as the vehicle for a bigger social and political issues, and so the comedy seems ill-placed. The fact that the Ugandan Anti-Homosexual Bill is still a possibility (although thankfully a diminishing one) and that homophobia is legally enshrined in other parts of Africa made it hard for me to get the joke. Particularly when the humour descends from some very intelligent set pieces – the conclave closing their eyes so as to avoid contact with the outside world is brilliantly done – to a moment bordering dangerously on racism at the end when the audience laughs at Joseph's naivety when he declares “I want to be a bishop” (despite others repeatedly noting his intelligence).

From his initial transgression, the play then wanders through a series of snapshots in Michael’s life, before things start to catch up with him. His broody high-strung wife Shelley is painfully two-dimensional; I'm not sure if it was possible to find sympathetic nuances to her character in Pautz's script, but Charlotte Randle certainly made no attempt. It's really quite understandable why Michael would choose to sleep with anyone else rather than her. Apart from her though, Matthew Dunster has gathered a solid cast for the most part. Ian Redford’s benevolent Santa Claus of an archbishop was certainly a saving grace. As was Anna Fleischle's wooden set, modified between scenes behind hotel-style blinds that offered a peek through the curtains at what was going on. Perhaps an appropriate image to end on, for a production that constantly felt like something half-glimpsed, a story barely told.


£10, semi-restricted view, level C. And boy, the National really aren’t kidding with ‘semi-restricted’. I would even go so far as to say that seats V36 and V37 might be considered ‘very restricted’, if indeed gradations of restriction are possible. Which I’m not sure they are. How does one quantify the difference between ‘restricted’ and ‘semi-restricted’? Anyway, from our perch on high we were able to see a lot of the action, provided it didn’t take place on stage right. Unfortunately, a fair bit did at times. My fellow theatregoer for the evening hadn’t even realised that Jonathan Cullen was in the first scene, tucked away as he was down there. Although he was much happier when he realised that our seats were prime location for Cullen’s full frontal nudity. One assumes the seats opposite give a full view of the back side of things. In a manner of speaking.

So swings and roundabouts really – mostly alright, with occasional intervals of emotional bald spot acting or cock, which, depending on your own views, might not be a selling point. To be honest, with how I felt about the show, leering leaning over the balcony for a tenner was more than sufficient.


£1.50. The cheapest programme I’ve had in a while, but no bloody wonder – it’s nothing more than a glorified cast list with extensive bios and some black and white rehearsal shots. Certainly, no attempt to expand further on the thinking behind the play (perhaps they realised it’s not possible)? Worth it only if you are a reviewer or collect this sort of theatre ephemera.

Total Cost:

£11.50 … although more expensive if the two pre-show, interval and two post-show drinks are included. All necessary, I assure you.

Love The Sinner plays at the National Theatre until 10 July. Tickets £10-32. To book, visit their website or call 020 7452 3000 for more information.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Ticket Offer: Peter Pan, Barbican

The Barbican are offering the chance to see Peter Pan for just £6! Choose your seats for 12, 13, 14 or 15 May (evening performances only) and enter the promotional code 10510. For more info visit

I have to confess, I hadn't heard great things about it, but at £6, I'm probably tempted to try it. Which is what cheap seats are all about.

This offer is limited & subject to availability. Bookable online only.

Ticket Offer: The Roman Bath, Arcola

Special offer for The Roman Bath at the Arcola - only £5 tickets for this Saturday's matinee (16th). Call the Box Office on 020 7503 1646 and quote 'facebook offer'.

For more information, visit the Arcola's website.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Ticket Offer: The White Guard, National Theatre

The National Theatre's carrying on with more cheap ticket offers on best seats, for The White Guard this Wednesday: great seats for an incredible £15 this Wednesday 12th at 7.30pm - enter promo code 2694. Quite what constitutes a 'great seat' I don't know, but they do say that they're normally £39.50.

There's also a similar offer for performances this Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 7.30pm, although they are £29 ... which isn't quite cheap enough for Views From the Cheap Seats. For those, enter promo code 2693.

For more info on this production, check out the NT's website.

Terms and Conditions:
Available on Valid seats normally £39.50. Subject to availability.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Review: Musashi, Barbican

In some ways, this is less a review and more some reflections on the international transportation of theatre. My only previous exposure to the Ninagawa company has been their sumptuous productions of Shakespeare’s Pericles and Twelfth Night (the latter by way of Shochiku Grand Kabuki). Watching these offered a fascinating mirror – literally in the case of Twelfth Night which opened with the audience looking at their reflection – where one could view Shakespeare through the prism of another culture. Without getting into the debate on intercultural theatre, I will say that the familiarity of the plays in question allowed me to feel that there was some solid ground on which I could legitimately respond. In contrast, the context of Yukio Ninagawa’s production of Hisashi Inoue’s Musashi is wholly unfamiliar to me and I'm in the anti-Wildean position of having nothing to declare but my ignorance at these cultural customs.

Made popular in a 1930s serialisation by Eiji Yoshikawa, the legendary duel in Japanese history between Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojirō in 1612 is reimagined in Inoue's script as a beginning, not an end. Seeking an alternative answer than death as the only possible conclusion to cycles of violence, Inoue allows Kojirō to survive the duel. Six years later, the two samurai meet at a wooden temple-cum-Noh stage, and urged by the temple residents, agree to meditate on their conflict for three days before acting on it. These spiritual guides include the Shogun's adviser, who breaks out into Noh song when excited, the patroness whose father was murdered over the results of a tea-guessing competition, and an old temple dancer with region-specific names, who reenacts a kyogen prayer dance from former days. To the ghost of an old octopus.

So, a production done entirely in Japanese, about a Japanese myth, based in Japanese theatrical traditions with some very specific Japanese geographical and culinary references - the cultural layers and levels are many and complicated. And I was barely able to interpret any of them. For example, was I meant to know or suspect all along what the stone signpost meant, or was that as much a surprise to members of the audience better versed than me in Japanese culture? I happened to read my programme in the interval and discovered that it was a kekkai-seki (of course!), which, once you know what it is, rather gives the game away for how things will pan out. Such a small thing - whether or not a stone has an assumed meaning - but one that fundamentally leads to two very different productions. In one, the stone operates as a subtle but revealing indicator of what's to come, and armed with this foreknowledge, leads you to watch the events of the play with one eye on how they fit into the ending. In the latter, the stone is unreadable as a symbol to the majority and the final twist is unexpected, coming out of nowhere.

There's something about this issue of interpretation and the tools that a reviewer has available to them with which to judge foreign theatre. On the surface, the surtitles are the most obvious interpretative mechanism and do a lot of the work for a non-Japanese speaker. But when one character has been speaking for close to 45 seconds and the surtitles continue to read "Yes, I agree" (no joke), then one wonders what exactly is lost in translation. This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it. But given my admitted struggle with, let's call it the textual side of the production, I have to ask myself how exactly I was forming a response to the production. I think my fear is that by being unable to participate in the typical interpretative process, theatre of this nature is reduced to exotic spectacle, with all the potentially negative connotations of post-colonialism that has. These my be my own narrow-minded politically correct fears. Yet the fact that the most entertaining moment of the evening for me was a sequence of samurai training comically performed to the familiar strains of tango music seems to be further ammunition for these anxieties.

£12, Upper Circle. The strength of Ninagawa’s production is always his stunning visuals, and viewing them from the upper circle does perhaps give a greater sense of the scale of them in this production than if viewed up close. The rustling bamboo disappears up into the heights of the Barbican stage, but also forces much of the action to the front and centre of the stage with only very occasional lapses of audibility. Which is pretty good going for the cheap seats, really.


Total Cost:

Musashi plays at the Barbican until 8 May. Tickets £10-40. Visit or call 020 7638 8891 for more information.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Ticket Offer: The Real Thing, Old Vic [free - understudy performance]

Although Toby Stephens might be one of the main reasons for going to see this Stoppard revival (or is that just me?), if you've missed The Real Thing so far, the understudy run is free of charge next Friday 14th May at 2.30pm. Doors will open an hour before the show.

Please note: Numbers are limited, subject to availability & based on a first come first served basis (so once the stalls are full, people will be turned away).

For more information on the play. visit

Ticket Offer: Love The Sinner, National Theatre

Another offer from the National Theatre - this time for top price tickets for just £15 (save £13.50) for Love the Sinner on Thursday 6 May.

To book online, enter the promotion code 2684 before selecting your seats, or call Box Office on 020 7452 3000 and quote 'Preview Offer'. Tickets subject to availability.

Sadly, I've already booked my tickets for next Tuesday evening, but hopefully I should be posting my thoughts on this production not long after.

Find out more about the show at

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Ticket Offer: Elektra, Young Vic [free]

FREE ticket offer for Elektra at the Young Vic from 23rd June until 3rd July 2010. With no press night and no previews, Elektra will apparently be "an experience that we can't put a price on - which is why it's free".

I've just got mine but they are going fast, so hurry if you want to catch this!

You will still need a ticket to come to the show - so book online today or call the Young Vic box office on 020 7922 2922.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Review: Hurts Given And Received, Riverside Studios

I’ll refrain from a tangent on voting Liberal Democrat this coming election, but I have always had a shameless leftist tendency to favour underdogs and outsiders. And they don’t come much more outsider than Howard Barker, one of the most significant British playwrights … who has never had a production staged at our National Theatre. A case in point: the Wrestling School. Refused a relatively small sum of funding by the Arts Council, rescued by an anonymous US donor, before celebrating its 21st birthday, it has been a turbulent couple of years for the production company dedicated to staging his works.

Ironically then, the ‘relevance’ of the first of Barker’s new plays at the Riverside Studios, Hurts Given And Received, seems obvious at a first glance: railing poet desperately seeks others’ suffering for magnum opus only to discover that his own sacrifice is demanded in order to communicate with the masses. It’s easy to see why one might be tempted to follow the siren song of allegorical interpretation and read something of Barker’s own experiences into it. The deceptively simple structure of consecutive visitations by various friends certainly encourages this.

But it’s too simple. Bach is by no means ‘Bach-er’. In spite of all his vitriol and sadism, Tom Riley’s Bach is much more charismatic than one suspects Barker might be. Surprisingly, for someone who criticised comedy’s banality in Arguments For A Theatre, despairing at the mass response it provokes, Barker’s script is laced with humour. The scene in which Jane Bertish’s police detective September unwittingly calls his “contemporaneity” into question by dismissing his outdated metaphors drives Bach to apoplexy, and the audience to laughter. Riley occupies the role with great vocal and physical presence, to such an extent that when he is absent from the the final half hour, the loss is truly felt. Although this might also be due to the fact that the optimistic 90 minutes running time came closer to 2 hours without an interval, with a couple of parts here and there that felt like they could have been trimmed.

Issy Brazier-Jones gives a worryingly good performance as the schoolgirl Sadovee, shifting the night’s initial light tone to something altogether darker. Tomas Leipzig’s staging aids this more ominous mood with an oversized scribe’s desk and chair that simultaneously suggest the weight of the responsibility and the frailty of those who pick up the pen.

This is a complex, layered piece of theatre that flirts with meaning, hinting at an overarching narrative into which all the pieces can be placed, but which always shifts out of vision. It’s not unlike the Old Sheep Shop in Alice In Wonderland in that regard (bear with me here): looking round, everything seems in place, but selecting any one aspect for special focus causes it to become insubstantial. One almost imagines Barker gleefully penning his flight into the imagination before disguising it in trappings that suggest, but never establish, a wider socio-political context.

Hurts Given And Received is an essay on poetry that manages to be at once manifesto and satire. But more than that, it is poetry itself, and a stunning example at that.

£15, unassigned seating. Unassigned seating is something of a mixed blessing for the theatregoer on a shoestring. On the one hand, if you're eager and arrive early enough, you can have your pick of seats. On the other, there are times when you'd really rather just know that you're going to be able to find seats together regardless of where they are (Southwark Playhouse, I'm looking at you). Playing to a house two-thirds empty (what was that about establishment outsider?), we were able to find seats in prime locations, and I suspect that the same will be true for the remainder of this show's run. Which is a pity, because this is a show that is more than worth the full ticket price.


Total Cost:

Hurts Given And Received plays at the Riverside Studios until 9 May. Tickets £15 (£10 concs). Visit or call 020 8237 1111 for more information.

Ticket Offer: The Habit Of Art, National Theatre

Exclusive Bank Holiday offer for Alan Bennett's The Habit Of Art at the National Theatre:

As a bank holiday treat, we're offering you best available seats for just £25 for matinees this Saturday and Sunday.

Alan Bennett's latest smash hit features a cast led by Richard Griffiths, Alex Jennings and Frances de la Tour.

Book online and enter promotion code 2687, or call 020 7452 3000 and quote ‘promotion 2687’.

Terms and Conditions:
Only valid for performances on 1st May (2.15pm), 2nd May (3pm). Subject to availability.