trafalgar studios

Review: Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses ★★★ – Steven Berkoff coupling on fine form

lunch-1-shaun-dooley-and-emily-bruni-photo-marc-brenner I’ll always be grateful to Steven Berkoff. Back in my days as drama lecturer, blown away by his 1983 play West, his second foray into life on London’s gangland manors, I wrote to him via his agent to ask if I might borrow the unpublished script. The hard copy arrived almost as fast as an email might now, by return with a friendly invitation to keep it. My students adored playing the scabrously ornate muscular verse and the body language it demanded.

Lunch dates from 1983, too and although it is prose, the language is often as extravagant – and as bracingly sexual. A man and a woman share a seaside bench at lunchtime. He confides lustful thoughts that she arouses, which make Trump’s ill-judged bragging look prim, and it’s in-yer-face in this intimate space, too. He is yearning, rather than boasting, with every muscle and fibre in Shaun Dooley’s extraordinary performance. Emily Bruni’s woman is equally physical – at first sight primly upright and uptight, but actually coiled like a spring ready to snap – or catch him in those coils...

Thanks also to Nigel Harman’s direction and movement director Alistair David, what follows is a masterclass in physicalising Berkoff’s language that would have enthralled my students. They prowl around each other like courting cats, he wiping from his brow real drops of sweat with a real hanky. At this proximity, audience members might also sweat uncomfortably as the couple eventually end up adjusting their dress at our feet.


But it’s their relish of the language that carries you along, the taste of it on the tongue – even when his chat-up line is trying to interest her in the space he sells for a living “electro-type on quarto double weight” (yes, space on paper, not online, Lunch is of its time) he enunciates alluringly in his attempt to melt “an ice lolly in a whirlwind.” “You’re not looking for me, you’re looking for it, you canine groper,” is her riposte (this comes more like a chat-up line before that apparent tumble behind the beach shelter).

That’s just a taste of what’s to come in the Bow of Ulysses, set (and indeed written) 20 years later and as many years into a marriage on the rocks. Rather than trading bracing insults, though, the estranged couple express themselves in longer, bitter monologues, downbeat this time. It was good to see these short companion pieces together, though strangely the first, as a real period piece, seemed less dated than its sequel. Ben and Max Ringham provide an evocative seaside soundscape and designer Lee Newby has a great eye for shades of brown that match at least the dress of this ill-matched pair in a seaside shelter that’s the only restful element in an unsettling evening.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Marc Brenner

Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses  runs until Saturday  5 November, Monday to Saturday 7.45pm Thursday and Saturday 3pm, £19.50-£35, at Trafalgar Studios 2, 14 Whitehall, SW1A 2DY; 0844 871 7632.

Review: No Villain ★★★★ – The world premiere of a vital addition to Arthur Miller’s canon of work – his very first play

No Villain - George Turvey - cCameron Harle "My first attempt at a play, rather inevitably," Arthur Miller once wrote, "had been about industrial action and a father and his two sons, the most autobiographical work I would ever write."

You may not have heard of Miller's play No Villain. It was his first, written when he was just 21, and submitted for the $250 Hopgood Award in drama at the University of Michigan, where he was studying in 1936. As the prize was worth about a quarter of the average family income at the time, it was extremely valuable to the Miller family, who had become impoverished during the Great Depression of the early-30s in the USA.

That you are reading about it now and can go and see it at London's Trafalgar Studios, is thanks to director Sean Turner, who worked doggedly to unearth this previously unpublished and unperformed play with the explicit aim of exploring the roots of Miller’s playwriting skills. So Turner has earned his place among Miller scholars for this invaluable insight into the development of one of America’s greatest playwrights. In this production, first seen at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre, he directs a close-knit cast in a way that lets Miller’s early voice shine through in all its youthful vigour, whatever the inevitable imperfections.

The plot is what would become familiar Miller territory, the family tensions between fathers and sons, here in a New York Jewish family, all bound up in a moral dilemma that explores the contradictions between soulless capitalism and the hopes and desires of the individual. In this self-avowedly autobiographical world, would-be communist Arny (a suitably chippy Alex Forsyth) comes home from University to find his father’s coat business on the point of collapse, precipitated by a recently-unionised workers’ strike that stops him shipping his output to customers. His struggling father Abe (David Bromley) and older brother Ben (George Turvey) urge Arny to help them save the business by getting out the orders, but Arny is trapped between loyalty to both his own family and a wider cause.

no villain © Cameron Harle

David Bromley’s Abe is full of the frustrations and tensions of a man whose business has already run down and is now finally collapsing. He is supported by that other Miller trope – his long-suffering wife – brought to life in a somewhat underwritten part by Nesba Crenshaw, with both actors capturing a real sense of time and place. George Turvey does sincere justice to the part of Ben, effectively Miller’s advocate, a good man who sees and tries to balance everything that life throws at him but finally accepts that that things fall apart and the centre cannot hold.

Helen Coles, Michael Lyle, Kenneth Jay and Stephen Omer brace the main characters with vivid character sketches in a variety of those supporting roles (kid sister, worker, grandfather born in the shtetl, rabbi, businessman, doctor…) we would now anticipate in a Miller play. Max Dorey’s small set evokes both the family home and the garment factory, where his realisation of those rails of white coats behind the action in the factory peoples the stage with an eerie chorus of extras, and he takes us from home to factory with a simple but effective switch. The lighting (Jack Weir), sound and original composition (Richard Melkonian), along with Natalie’s Pryce’s costumes, all help engender a real feel of 1930’s New York.

There’s plenty of recognisably Miller-style language, full of vivid, lyrical imagery and a heightened tone that still sounds real. Yet there’s a certain overall coolness in the delivery of Miller’s lines here that doesn’t quite capture the colour and humour of Jewish New York. In the end, it’s a play for Miller aficionados and theatre buffs who like to collect the rare. If you are one of these, it won’t disappoint. If you are not, it still gives a vital insight into the roots of one of the most important prolific and playwrights, not just in American theatre, but on the world stage.

By Judi Herman

No Villain runs until 9 July, 7.45pm & 3pm, £15-£30, at Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, SW1A 2DY; 0844 871 7632.

Review: The Homecoming ★★★★ – Judi Herman is drawn in by the vile power of Pinter

Homecoming-John Simm © Marc Brenner I saw the original production of Harold Pinter’s dark, multi-award-winning comedy as a precocious, theatre-mad teenager. I wouldn't have been allowed near it if it had been a film, it would have been x-rated in those days for sure! The homecoming of the title is the return to the flinty bosom of his East End family of Teddy, a college lecturer Stateside with a murky past in this all-male household ruled over by retired butcher Max. Teddy brings home the, er, "bacon" in the alluring shape of Ruth, his wife of five years. The power play between the brothers, their father and above all between Ruth and her in-laws is the meat of the play. I particularly remember Ian Holm, sinister and dangerous as Lenny the pimp; and Vivien Merchant, Pinter’s first wife, who created the role of Ruth, and the way she crossed her legs causing shock waves to ripple through the theatre – and I don't mean because of the static in her nylons…

Gemma Chan makes the role of Ruth her own in Jamie Lloyd’s spare and scabrously funny production. She has extraordinarily precise body language, at once apparently passive, exposed, vulnerable even, and yet enigmatic – you wonder what is running through her mind as she takes a lone night stroll outside her husband’s family home. You wait uncomfortably for a reaction when she meets these unlovable foul-mouthed Londoners (Max habitually refers to all women, including his late wife, as bitches and worse), enduring their bullying and menacing in apparently dignified silence. Then there is that pivotal see-saw moment where the power shifts. It is suddenly obvious that Ruth has the measure of John Simm’s predatory Lenny. In her hands, the glass of water Pinter gives her as a bargaining chip turns not into wine, but a dangerous, potential aphrodisiac.

Homecoming © Marc Brenner

Although there are scenes when director Jamie Lloyd (who worked with Pinter himself on productions of his plays) brilliantly fields the whole dysfunctional family, it’s the tussles in those duologues, precisely calibrated by both actors and director, that are the guilty pleasures for me. Every family member is on the take, using and abusing each other is second nature and the language is shocking and brutal, but it’s the way this family communicates and it’s almost as if the care they take to choose their epithets is the way they show they care.

John Simm and Ron Cook open the play with cross-generational sparring that sets the tone and they create a magnificently vile father and son relationship. Cook is all ineffectual, bullying bluster and Simm is immediately silky and menacing – a terrific exponent of Pinter. Gary Kemp’s Teddy is a fine study in disintegration from lofty academic to his old place low in the pecking order in this disreputable band of brothers. Keith Allen’s Sam, a chauffeur by trade, intimates why he might be a bachelor, though this can never be articulated in this testosterone-fuelled household, where youngest brother Joey is a failing boxer (effectively ineffectual in John Macmillan’s almost touching performance). This starry ensemble cast works together wonderfully to create Pinter’s claustrophobic world on Soutra Gilmour’s clever set – a sparsely furnished room dominated by Dad’s ancient armchair. Lighting designer Richard Howell transforms the realism into what looks a terrifying 3D projection that traps the characters in a blood red frame, to sound designer George Dennis’ perfect, brash soundtrack.

Pinter would have been proud of his amanuensis!

By Judi Herman

'The Homecoming' runs until 13 February 2016, 7.30pm & 2.30pm, £29.50-£69.50, at Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, SW1A 2DY; 0844 871 7632.