Reviewed – 2nd November 2020
“The formidable characters displayed are certainly matched by the starry cast”
The dinner party has always offered food for thought for playwrights and, over the years, many fine examples have been dished up in our theatres. Neil Simon’s ‘The Dinner Party’ (obviously), Moira Buffini’s ‘Dinner’, David Eldridge’s ‘Festen’, Mike Leigh’s ‘Abigail’s Party’ and, of course, Alan Ayckbourn whose ‘Absurd Person Singular’ and ‘The Norman Conquests’ stand out. There is no place like the dinner table for drama, grudges, arguments, feuds and even a little crazy affection to surface.
Steven Carl McCasland has taken this formula and garnished it with a generous blend of fact and fiction. And plenty of friction. “Little Wars” brings together some of the most extraordinary and noted women in modern literature. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are the hosts entertaining none other than Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie. They are in France, tensions are high, the booze is flowing, and war is coming. Together they drink, and face a demon or two. Everyone has a confession and a secret and as the evening wears on their hard exteriors wear down.
The play is split into two halves. Initially the bickering and sharp-witted banter dominates and the personalities clash with subtle, though bitchy, humour. The presence of the only non-writer guest shifts the conversation into an impassioned discussion of the plight of Jews in the looming shadow of World War II. There is a real depth to the dialogue which also draws in the German, Jewish housemaid whose backstory certainly throws gas on the fire.
The formidable characters displayed are certainly matched by the starry cast. Linda Bassett dominates as Gertrude Stein with a swaggering petulance that eventually cracks to reveal a softer centre. Catherine Russell gives a richness to her lover, Alice Toklas; teasing her out from under the shadow of the presiding Stein. Juliet Stevenson bursts in with prickly invective which you both delight in and are repulsed by. Stevenson’s masterful performance renders the unattractive appealing and her eventual moral sea change quite moving. Debbie Chazen’s gin-soaked Dorothy Parker is forever teetering on the edge while, in contrast, Sophie Thompson’s Agatha Christie rounds everyone together with her outside eye, like one of Christie’s own detectives, probing and trying to understand. But the unsung heroines of the piece are the two characters who exist on the edges of this literary ‘salon’. Natasha Karp’s Bernadette, the housemaid, has the most harrowing story to tell. And it is fundamentally her story we are being told. Hers, and the plight of countless other Jews during the Nazi invasion of France. Crucial to the story too is Sarah Solemani’s Muriel Gardiner who is not afraid to challenge the women’s self-belief and prejudices, and who is just as fearless in the face of the Occupation.
The themes addressed in “Little Wars” are compelling. It possibly helps to have some background knowledge of the real-life personalities portrayed, but McCasland’s skill, meticulous research and flamboyant imagination leave you enthralled throughout. Almost. By necessity this production is a rehearsed reading and the limitations of Zoom, despite Hannah Chissick’s dynamic direction, are sometimes all too noticeable. The lack of reaction and interaction inherent in the format emphasises the need and the longing for theatre to return to its true home.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by John Brannoch
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Reviewed – 14th January 2020
“Maitland’s vocal control in particular is quite staggering, bringing a coiled strength to the small auditorium.”
Often described as the sequel to ‘Fiddler On the Roof’, ‘Rags’, originally written by Joseph Stein (who did also write ‘Fiddler’) enjoyed only four days on Broadway in its 1987 debut. Regardless, it was nominated for five Tony awards that year. But, more baffling still, it has never been brought back to the stage, that is, until now.
Revised by David Thompson and directed by Bronagh Lagan, ‘Rags’ tells the story of Jewish immigrants making their way to America at the turn of the twentieth century. Among the boatloads of hopefuls is Rebecca (Carolyn Maitland), with her son David (as played by Jude Muir for this performance), who, without any family or a nickel to her name, is determined to succeed in this new promised land.
As with most sequels, ‘Rags’ has loosely the same narrative arc as its predecessor: A community of traditional Jews fights off the outside world on multiple fronts, be it via assimilation, persecution or modernisation. Certain familiar characters re-appear as well. Ben (Oisin Nolan-Power) for example, a nice but nerdy tailor seeks the affections of Bella (Martha Kirby) whose father, Avram (Dave Willetts) disapproves of the union. I mean, why not just call them Motel and Tzeitel and have done with it.
But ‘Rags’ does depart from ‘Fiddler’ in its sheer volume of historical content, including everything from the 1909 Shirtwaist strikes and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to the emergence of feminism, the rising popularity of Yiddish theatre and song writing, and culture clashes, not only between different ethnicities and religions, but also first and second-wave immigrants. In order to include all of this, every character symbolises a school of thought, be it capitalism or communism, traditionalism or modernisation. And this leaves little room for any of the characters to have any, well, character. The older generation – aunt, uncle and father – bring a little Yiddish flavour from the old country, but aside from that everyone is a bit bland.
The soundtrack (Charles Strouse/Stephen Schwartz) flits between a klezmer-ragtime fusion, and modern musical numbers. The former is accompanied by a swaggering Klezmer band wondering the stage, playing various bit-parts as they go. The small ensemble brings a tonne of humour and spirit to the production. Clarinettist Natasha Karp is a particular joy to watch, her constant facial expressions a kind of running commentary on the story’s goings-on.
The more modern numbers, however, are generally forgettable and feel mismatched with the themes of the plot.
The set (Gregor Donnelly), consisting of a wall of suitcases, and sparse furniture, provides an atmosphere of transition; of both hope and hardship. Whilst Rebecca, Bella and David have just arrived, the small apartment has been the home of multiple immigrant families before this one, and will no doubt go on to house many more after, and the set succeeds in keeping this feeling of flux throughout.
The cast themselves are gloriously talented, doing their best to inject colour and excitement to a story that drags on at least a half hour too long. Maitland’s vocal control in particular is quite staggering, bringing a coiled strength to the small auditorium.
But whilst ‘Rags’ was not intended as a direct sequel for ‘Fiddler’, it’s hard not to consider it as such and, as is often the case with sequels, it doesn’t stand up to comparison. Yes, there are a couple of catchy numbers, a couple of funny scenes, and a couple of moments of heartfelt reflection. But not enough on any count, and unfortunately this revival is less a story of rags to riches, and more rags to run-of-the-mill.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Pamela Raith
Park Theatre until 8th February
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