“Joseph’s performance is impeccable, passionate and entrancing.”
When Paterson Joseph wrote ‘Sancho: An Act of Remembrance’, which was first performed in 2015, he could never have imagined the relevance it would have amidst the clamour of the Windrush scandal. Inspired by a portrait by Gainsborough and, as Joseph pointedly explains with a twinkle in his eye, an unattainable wish to be in a costume drama, we are lead through the surprising life and fate of Charles Ignatius Sancho. He was born in 1729 on a slave ship bound for the West Indies, brought to London at an early age by his master and subsequently taken in by the Duke of Montagu who employed him as a butler and, more importantly, educated him. Although Sancho was a significant anti-slavery campaigner and was to become the first Afro-Briton to vote in a British general election, his story is one of an aspiring actor, musician and composer, whose ultimate destiny lay in a grocer’s shop in Westminster. Joseph’s script brings a simple narrative alive with the colourful characters who shape Sancho’s life and the everyday events complicated by his origins.
Joseph’s performance is impeccable, passionate and entrancing. His command of the stage and the audience is remarkable. We are captivated by his own charisma and, with humour, drama and eloquence, he steers us through Sancho’s distinctive history, portraying the personalities around him with expressive accents and deftly-handled props. Together with co-director, Simon Godwin, they produce a show which is artfully paced and nuanced; from light-hearted moments involving the audience to the moving speech by Oroonoko, Prince of Angola, we move from one sensation to another. In addition, the frighteningly familiar current situation reflected in Act II builds to a powerful ending.
Inside the shabby-chic setting of Wilton’s Music Hall, the wood of Michael Vale’s set evokes the interior of a ship which stands as a reminder of Sancho’s journey as well as adapting to the many varied scenes. The costumes (Linda Haysman) and props adeptly complete the sense of transition as they are refashioned through the action of the play. The lighting design by Lucrecia Briceno enriches the diverse moods and the interjections of music (Ben Park) mark Sancho’s cultural aspect.
There are occasions when the chemistry between artists and audience transcend a wonderful performance and it becomes a unique experience, hard to put into words. Last night the craftsmanship in the writing and acting, the creative design and strong, pertinent message, were heightened by a receptiveness and a music hall setting which buzzed with excited energy – the enjoyment of a tremendous piece of theatre and awareness of this very British struggle which continues today.
“The deranged characters become unhinged by their own rules and the Christmas celebration descends into anarchy”
“Rules For Living” by Sam Holcroft gets its second outing after a 2015 run at the National Theatre. Directed by Simon Godwin, this is a co-production by the Rose Theatre Kingston, the English Touring Theatre and the Royal and Derngate in Northampton.
It’s Christmas Day and the family gathers round to celebrate with the patriarch, whom we learn is just coming home from the hospital. Amid all the Christmas decorations and fake bonhomie, all is not well. There is the obnoxiously blabber-mouthed girlfriend Carrie (Carlyss Peer); the bossy matriarch, Edith (Jane Booker) who must tidy the house to remain calm; the long awaited father (Paul Shelley) who is incapacitated, but not enough so that he doesn’t have an eye, and indeed a pinch, for a pretty girl. Joining them are the failed cricketer husband and son (Ed Hughes), who is at odds with the favoured lawyer son Matthew (an excellently understated Jolyon Coy) and Nicole (Laura Rogers), the daughter-in-law who gradually gets drunker as the evening progresses. In addition there is a grand daughter who is unable to come downstairs due to unspecified mental health issues. This is the cue for cognitive behavioural therapy to be introduced.
The premise is that everyone has rules for living life that come from childhood. Holcroft uses these rules to flag up each character’s foibles to the audience. This is a funny, almost Brechtian device that projects onto screens above the action to explain quirks such as Matt must sit to tell a lie or Carrie must stand and dance to tell a joke. At times the play shifts into absurdity as it piles on more outlandish layers to these rules.
There are plenty of laughs at closely observed middle class family life. There are shades of Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever”, and that “poet of formica and despair”, Alan Ayckbourn. There are private conversations; arguments about the virtues of rice milk versus goats milk; Mum despairing over her children’s clothing choices; sibling rivalry; pretending to talk about something else when others came into the room; pretending to enjoy the food a character cooks; a forgotten Christmas present. The play touches on deeper themes of being honest, people not listening to each other, and facing a parent’s mortality. The catalyst for the evening’s final descent into chaos is a card game aptly named Bedlam. The deranged characters become unhinged by their own rules and the Christmas celebration descends into anarchy, culminating in a chaotic food fight.
The wonderfully designed, tiny, colourful set breaks in half as the action spills out onto the thrust stage. Designed by Lily Arnold it is augmented by the video designs of Andrzej Goulding. Mark Melville has composed the wonderful score featuring glockenspiel Christmas music, pastoral tunes (complete with tweeting birds) and the video game sounds that punctuate the rules captions.
My main criticism is that the structure became too much when the third layer of rules were imposed. The rules feel arbitrary and the play collapses in on itself. There is also a rather unbelievable love triangle. The play left me cold, as I didn’t ultimately care about the characters. They appear to be automatons with impulses, except the poor granddaughter upstairs who is lucky enough to escape the madcap festivities.
At the end, Edith says, “We’ll look back on this and laugh”, and for the main part, the audience did.
Reviewed by Hellena Taylor
Photography by Mark Douet
RULES FOR LIVING
is at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 18th November