Kevin Johnson

Review The Cherry Orchard, Sherman Theatre by Kevin Johnson

This is not a new version of the Chekhov classic, but a ‘re-imagining’ by Welsh writer Gary Owen, of Killology & Iphigenia In Splott fame. Owen relocates it from 1890’s Russia to the Pembroke coast in 1982, just prior to the Falklands War, which makes for a very interesting choice.

It feels like every dysfunctional family drama you’ve ever seen, until you realise Chekhov originated the idea of real characters, with real problems, talking like real people.

Family matriarch Rainey, who has crawled into a bottle after the death of her son over a decade ago, followed soon after by the suicide of her husband, is virtually dragged back to the family home from London by Anya, her youngest daughter. Her self-destructive lifestyle has lead to the family home on the Pembroke coast being auctioned off to pay the debts.

Val, her eldest daughter, has held things together, but they need Raynie’s permission (and signature) to save it. All agree that the only viable option is to sell off the ancestral cherry orchard for redevelopment, but will she see it that way?

This play is incredibly funny and well-worth seeing, if only for the way Owen makes it so accessible to Welsh eyes. The ‘Russian peasants’ now come from housing estates, the decaying aristocracy are English interlopers, and the Communist revolutionaries are now Thatcherites, sweeping the past away without a thought or concern.

At the heart of the play is the idea that the future is farther away than we hope, while the past is always closer than we’d like. The characters here are continually haunted, not by spirits, but by the ghosts of memories, taunting them with remembrance.

Rainey tries to forget through excess, her guilt at losing her son gnawing away at her, like a rat sown inside her skin. In the end it causes her to take drastic action, and Denise Black brings all this out in a masterful performance that makes you feel sorry for her, even while she’s being a monster to all and sundry.

The entire cast take their moments when offered, yet still make this a true ensemble piece. Morfydd Clark is sweetly sensual as the young Anya, while Hedydd Dylan as her elder sister Val, shows us a woman who tries to run other people’s lives, but fails at her own.

Simon Armstrong as Gabe, Rainey’s brother, is amusingly ineffectual, yet quietly sharp. When Val talks about Rainey not telling him about her plans to leave he replies “We’ve been brother & sister half a century. Through awful things. Do you think saying ‘goodbye’ makes any difference?”

Alexandria Riley gives us a Dottie that is down to earth yet shows the love/hate relationship she has with the family, while Richard Mylan is funny, while also imparting a wise naïveté to Ceri.

Mathew Bulgo, given the task of Lewis, the ‘poor boy made good’, effects a performance of subtlety that defies the historical villain the role has been seen as. With the insults he endures from the others, and denied the role of ‘family saviour’ by Rainey, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him.

Writer Gary Owen conveys a situation full of layers, and also offers some nice ironies. Ceri’s expectations of Margaret Thatcher getting the blame for the Falklands War being one, Gabe’s job offer as an investment banker another.

When you add all this to Rachel O’Riordan’s deft direction, Kenny Miller’s intriguingly skewed set, and Kevin Tracey’s ingenious lighting, the Sherman Theatre demonstrates yet again that it is punching well above its weight in the theatre world.

There is so much going on here that I actually re-read the script in one go afterwards, and was still as gripped as I was by seeing it. The play is funny, ironic, witty, sarcastic and quietly heartbreaking. It is a story of loss, of people, places and things, and how memories both haunt and define us.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed: ‘We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past‘.

Kevin Johnson

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    Review The Mountain Between Us by Kevin Johnson

    An interesting but flawed idea, two strangers survive a plane crash in the mountains, get to know each other as they try to walk out of the frozen wilderness, and begin to fall in love.

    Idris Elba shows his star quality by holding his own against Kate Winslett. They have chemistry, and full marks for casting an interracial couple, but it doesn’t quite work.

    Films like this drive me mad, because they’re so close to being brilliant, but fall short. The scenery, mostly snowy mountains, is amazing, the music is good, as is the direction, with some innovative touches. The script, however, lets everyone down.

    Elba is an emotionally constipated neurosurgeon, Winslett a maverick photojournalist, both are strong-willed yet it’s she who drives them on while he wants to play it safe. So far, so good.

    What could then have been developed into an interesting character piece, starts to unravel. Winslett keeps moaning about her poor fiancé, whilst the plight of the ten year old patient Elba was supposed to operate on is ignored.

    It doesn’t help that the film is divided into ‘before and after’ section, which means the ending gets bogged down in romantic cliches that dilute the emotional momentum from before. There’s even a sex scene which, although beautifully filmed, jars with the story.

    The film falls between two stools, neither a romance nor a survival thriller, although it tries to be both. Not a bad film though, just not a great one.

    Oh and there’s a cute dog.

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      Review Forget-Me-Not Chorus, Wales Millennium Centre Foyer by Kevin Johnson

       All  Photographs Brian Tarr

      Consisting of people living with dementia and their carers, the Chorus held a free concert in the Centre prior to Welsh National Opera’s production of Khovanschina. I’ve no idea what the opera was like, but they could have learned a thing or two from this group.

      It was brief, less than half a dozen numbers, interspersed with poems, but if the quantity was low, the quality was high. Showing a repertoire that went from ‘You Are My Sunshine’ to ‘Under The Boardwalk’ via Elvis, they were not technically brilliant, but brought a ‘joie de vivre’ to things that many professionals can’t manage.

      I must confess that there was a tear in my eye watching them, especially one member wearing African dress & cap, who danced his heart out in every number.

      There was a smile on my face too, and the crowd – quite a sizeable one – loved it. My favourite moment was watching a young mother dancing with her baby to Under The Boardwalk. Simply wonderful.

      This event was the launch of the new #MySongMyStory project.

      You could find out more about the work of The Foget me Not Chorus at the link

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        Review Us Proclaimed/Clywch Ni, Mess Up The Mess, Wales Millennium Centre by Kevin Johnson.

        Aged from 11-20 plus, Mess Up The Mess Theatre Company make ‘awkward and brave theatre by, for and with young people’. Their new show ‘Us Proclaimed/Clywch Ni’ features over a dozen actors at the Wales Millennium Centre, Dance House.

        It starts with a line up of the cast, who then turn their back on the audience, before assembling in a series of ‘scales’: alphabetically by first name, surname, home, then things start getting more honest, revealing, and then raw.

        They line up in scales of sexuality, gender, feeling anxious, optimistic about the future, all while explaining what THEY think, stripping away the hypocrisy of the ‘real’ world, and showing us what’s actually real to them.

        The honesty of this cast is humbling: personal stories, personal feelings, personal ‘secrets’ even, are not just divulged but proclaimed. Sometimes in simple words, sometimes with songs, or even comedy.

        My personal highlight was young actor Ciaran Fitzgerald with cerebral palsy wearing a T-shirt stating ‘I don’t have cerebral palsy, I’m drunk’, explained later when he recounts being refused service at a pub because the barmaid thought he was drunk.

        Perhaps a little blunt at times? I’m not sure, sometimes bluntness is called for. ‘We don’t want to preach’ they sing at the start, but they certainly make many good points.

        Above all else they are wary of the future, some are worried but most are positive. Having seen – and more importantly listened – to them, I’m feeling a lot more optimistic about the future myself.

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          Review Hamlet Almeida Theatre by Kevin Johnson

          I’ve been trying to see this for nearly a year, since it was at the Almeida. It was worth the wait.

          Andrew Scott, one of my favourite actors, gives what I can only describe as a true Irish Hamlet: sad, bittersweet and quietly, heartbreakingly funny.

          He sees the irony through the madness and the sorrow, yet his grief is always just behind his eyes. This is a romantic hero of legend, Scott brings a childlike sweetness to the role and thus he makes us care for Hamlet all the more, even when he is at his most irresponsible.

          The setting is modern, innovative and intriguing. The play begins with coverage of the King’s state funeral straight from a cable news channel, albeit in Danish. CCTV is everywhere, the ghost first appears on a control room screen, and everyone is being watched and spied on, as they are in the play. As are we.

          Ian Rickson’s 2011 Hamlet emphasised the madness within the play by setting it in an asylum, the audience even entering the theatre after walking through the set. Robert Icke’s production in contrast focuses on surveillance. Britain has more security cameras than any other country in the world, we are all being watched. The same, it seems, is true of the ‘state of Denmark’. Is this what is ‘rotten’?

          The play within the play takes centre stage, while the cast sits in the front row among us, their faces thrown by live camera onto screens around the auditorium and above the stage. A clever use of old and new, theatre and video, where Claudius’ reaction is ‘caught on tape’, before he storms out of the theatre. It strikes true in today’s society, where it seems as if nothing is real unless shown on screen.

          This also means that the subtle looks from the actors, such as Hamlet’s eye rolling at a Claudius soundbite, is not missed. Indeed such moments give this production a lot of humour that I haven’t seen since David Tennant’s version.

          In other resonances to modern times, Polonius seems to be suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s, Rosencranz and Guildenstern are a couple, and both Hamlet and Gertrude (A loving yet still sexual Derbhle Crotty) are the only characters that speak with Irish accents, which subtly evokes the mother/son bond.

          For me, Michael Sheen is still my favourite Dane, but Andrew Scott is but a hair’s breadth behind. My only criticism would be his foot-stamping, which brings out the ‘little prince’ in the character, but is over-used. He makes the words his own, and shares his feelings only with us.

          Jessica Brown Findlay is a sweetly sensual Ophelia, crushed by heartbreak, Angus Wright’s Claudius has more smarm than Tony Blair, Joshua Higgott’s Horatio is a true friend of Hamlet, but it was Peter Wright’s performance as Polonius that most caught my eye.

          Switching from caring father to tyrant, from accomplished fixer to absent minded rambler, hinting at some form of dementia, Wright subtly makes him all too human.

          The trouble with this play is that often you have a great Hamlet but not a great production, or vice versa. Here, for once, you have both.

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