THEATRE: Night of the Living Dead – Remix, dir. Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks for imitating the dog

imitating the dog haven’t tackled a film before, but George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is the perfect vehicle for the company’s innovative blend of theatre and digital media. The concept is simple: an ensemble of seven performers attempts to create the classic film shot-for-shot live on a stage, while the film plays on a screen above. The execution, however, is anything but simple, and the resulting theatrical experience is a tour de force that manages to be both a virtuoso display of technical and choreographic skill, and a surprisingly moving enhancement of the original film’s social implications.

On a stage, a man holds up a gun towards a group of silhouetted zombies, while screens above show a film and a live feed.

The company has four cameras at its disposable, ranging from large steadicams to hand-held devices to fibre-optics for miniature work. The promise to recreate the film shot-for-shot is, surprisingly, not an exaggeration. The seven performers not only play the characters, but also film one another from the exact same angles (or as close as possible) as the film. At its most complex, this leads to dizzying displays of multi-tasking, including one moment where a performer plays a newsreader from the neck up, while holding a camera at waist level which is filming another character’s reactions to watching the news.

The precision is staggering, as both performers and camera operators move quickly to their marks and strike the appropriate pose and angle in time for shots that sometimes last a fraction of a second. The chaos of the stage – with several shots being filmed or set up simultaneously – is clarified in the right-hand screen above the stage, which gives an edited live feed that matches the adjacent movie screen with surprising accuracy. But there’s also a great amount of comedy. Especially in the second half, when there are more characters meaning a more complex arrangement of blocking to allow for two-shots, the performers position themselves in uncanny angles in relation to one another, making themselves available for the camera rather than recreating the implied naturalistic blocking of the film. At times, performers might duck to the floor so that a reaction shot can be filmed over their heads, before twisting back into place for a fresh angle.

The style offers an interesting practice-based commentary on the differences between stage and film acting. Here, the craft of the actor is on display as they set themselves up for isolated moments; in between their shots, however, they are camera operators or moving into place. There is no arc for the actor, no continued psychological exploration of a single character. Indeed, while most performers have a primary character, they also double as many others; and many characters are played by multiple actors. The central role of Barbara is, for much of the first half, played by two actors in identical wigs and costumes, to allow for the company to catch her from different angles. Film acting fragments the individual, severing them into moments and positions and reactions, but denying them autonomy and development. In this sense, the film actor becomes a kind of zombie, moving through the motions at the behest of an invisible power (here, time as marked by the irrevocable linear movement of the source film).

This of course isn’t to imply that the cast aren’t excellent; in fact, they’re extraordinary. Not only are they acting and filming simultaneously, but they’re also recreating bad performances, most hilariously in Will Holstead and Adela Rajnovic’s turn as teenage lovers Tom and Judy, who have a hilariously mannered conversation. The cast don’t play it for laughs, but comedy is inevitable as they start shuffling around as zombies and having fights; and the use of small models for long shots, with zombies on sticks growling and shuffling in groups, is clearly hilarious. And every now and again there is subtle meta-theatrical commentary on the performances; at one point, one of the actors playing a newsreader continues in her role when not speaking, walking to the front of the stage and glowering as she waits for her line, before putting on a breezy smile to continue reporting on the horrors.

For much of the production, Night of the Living Dead – Remix can be seen as a technical showcase for its own sake; but it becomes clear that there’s more going on here. Across the screens that make up the three walls of the set – which regularly show hand-drawn perspective sets against which the actors are shot – the production regularly flashes contemporary footage of historical events. Newsreaders offer reports on the assassinations of JFK and MLK, and speeches by John, Martin and Bobby Kennedy are played out as well. At times the interruption of this footage creates profound effects – during the hurling of molotov cocktails, the screens start showing footage from Vietnam; and when the militia starts heading out to shoot zombies, there’s another cut to US forces in Vietnam. But the production builds to a climax where, as Ben waits in the house, the last survivor, he begins delivering lines from Kennedy and King’s most famous speeches as images of the men flash up on screen, presaging his murder by the white militia with reminders of the sacrifices made in the pursuit of the civil rights struggle. These are subtexts embedded in the original film, but to see them turned into main text here gives the whole endeavour purpose and clarity. It’s a powerful end to a compelling and dazzling production.

COMEDY: Josie Long, ‘Tender’ at Nottingham Playhouse

Josie Long promises hope, during what is a very bad time to be a socialist. With Britain finally out of the EU, continents on fire, and the right on the rise, Long admits that it’s hard to find optimism, and that she herself lives in what sometimes feels like a constant flurry of panic and dread. And yet, she promises us, things are going to be better. And you know why? Because she’s the first person ever to have had a baby.

A woman stands in a wheat field with a baby strapped to her breast.
Baby not included.

It’s been three years since Long’s last full-length show, during which time she’s become a mother for the first time. The two part-show is structured as her recounting of her experiences of pregnancy, birth, and early parenthood, delivered with an exuberant energy that belies the fact that she’s very, very tired. Long’s gift as a comedian is the performance she makes of kindness and generosity, which fits extremely well with the content – she seems genuinely thrilled to be back on a stage and grateful for the laughter she gets, without ever seeming to need it. And as if she’s back among friends, she wants to tell us all about it.

The main narrative is delightful, and full of hilarious insight. She sends up herself and her partner Jonny (of Jonny and the Baptists) and their exploration of hypnobirth – which is given extra hilarity at the Nottingham show as her hypnobirth mentor is in the audience – laughing at the middle-classness of it all while also peddling her new-found love of dates and inspirational quotes from the angels. She describes the pain of labour as like Michael Gove hammering into her back with a flint, and has particular fun describing in graphic detail the three minutes between the push that gives birth to the baby’s head, and the push that allows it to fully emerge, and the weirdness of trying to make small talk for those three minutes. She declares any woman who doesn’t share the gas with her birthing partner ‘a scab’, and brilliantly sends up her own mood swings (including her frustration with the taxi driver who refused to ramraid the hospital to deliver her directly to the birthing suite). And there’s lots of fun competition, including her smug feelings towards another woman who started having contractions before making it to the hospital door, just before her own start.

Alongside this is plenty of reflection on Long’s regular themes. The celebration of her own body in defiance of societal expectations is given extra heft by the experience of pregnancy, during which she proudly manspreaded and barreled others out of the way while being celebrated for putting on weight (and there’s a long digression, trialled during last year’s Lefty Scum shows, when she advocates for everyone getting their own ‘Baby on Board’ badges). The offer of a stitch for ‘cosmetic reasons’ after birth particularly grates with her, but her real ire is reserved for those who listen to her tiredness and then condescendingly shake their head and say ‘You just wait’ (‘And the worst part is, THEY’RE RIGHT!’). And of course, while the focus is on joy and babies, politics is a key interwoven strand, with the threats to the NHS heavy on her mind.

But childbirth, while providing the structure of the show, is not really the subject of Tender. Instead, it’s how having a child has given her a new outlook on life. She describes how she was told by her mother that the first words she was told were ‘Hello darling’, and while she jokingly gives us several versions of the first words she said to her daughter, to her, ‘Hello darling’ was the only natural thing to say (as opposed to ‘Alright, cunt?’). The joy and protection she feels for her baby are accompanied by fear about climate change, but while this starts as a panic, for Long it’s also the answer. Learning to see the world anew through her child’s eyes (with a brilliant bit about her fascination with leaves, and thus the mindfuck that is Autumn), and to rekindle the fight at the point of mid-life exhaustion, is key to Long’s political and environmental consciousness. Bringing a new child into the world isn’t irresponsible – bringing up the generation who are going to save the world might make a real difference.

And while the environmental theme is heavy, Long keeps it light, with a fluffy toy seal providing ventriloquised insights, and quotations from Greta Thunberg’s manifesto providing her with inspiration. Long repeatedly sends up her own failure to live up to her own standards (‘I only eat chicken which has had a better life than me; as someone who rents in London, that’s all chicken’), but the new mission granted her by the new life she has brought into the world is one of hope and action, of cathedral thinking. Long is as hilarious as ever (there’s simply not space here to do justice to the wit and joy of her jokes), but it’s also wonderful to see her rejuvenated, deeply in love with life, and as ready as ever to start a revolution.

COMEDY: Stewart Lee, ‘Tornado/Snowflake’ at Nottingham Playhouse

‘This is a five-star show’ Stewart Lee instructs us, while also introducing himself as The Times‘ Number One living comedian. ‘If it’s not going well, it must be you, because I’m doing the same thing every night’. As often for Lee, the form and status of the stand-up comedy show is as much a theme as anything else, as he reflects on aging, fame, popularity and success – and sharks.

A man speaks into a microphone while reading from a book entitled 'Alan Bennett, Sharknado'.
Alan Bennett’s Sharknado‘ is one of the finest parodies one could hope to see.

Running through this two-part show is the question about what, after three decades in the business, Lee’s brand of politically correct comedy means to the world. Lee begins with conventionally self-deprecating material – his weight, his deafness, his greying hair, the fact that he now qualifies for chair-based exercise classes at his local gym. And this brings him to consider the state of comedy today – his flailing attempts to make friends with younger comedians while explaining to them the factual tax-based reasons for the idiosyncrasies of society they are skewering (Josh Widdicombe), or his desire to meet Dave Chapelle, only to be floored by the appearance of two (two!) rotisserie chickens in Chapelle’s rider.

Lee’s sense of confusion and odd-one-outness among his fellow comedians – while also clinging onto his Times-approved status as Number One (‘Chapelle’s at number nine – that’s a bit awkward’) – connects thematically to the broader issues of political correctness dealt with in Snowflake, as he comically parodies old people’s confusion at a changing world around them. The sweet reversal is that the old outdated values Lee is standing up for are precisely the liberal, politically correct values of the alternative comedy scene he began working in. Michael Billington’s Guardian review gets this flat-out wrong, I think. Yes, Lee has it in for everyone, and sanctimonious political correctness is as much a cause for mockery as anything else. But this is a defence of political correctness, of the idea that punching down (and especially making money off punching down) is a Bad Thing; and of the value of comedy in exposing hypocrisy and advancing social change. And if, as he takes a more reflective tone, the message becomes one of kindness rather than anger, that feels like a natural evolution of how Lee’s core values are articulated.

None of which stops this being a viciously funny show. Tornado, the first act, riffs around a cock-up on Netflix that gave Lee’s show the blurb originally intended for the movie Sharknado. This allows Lee – the Times-approved #1 living comedian – to ask questions about fairness, and to examine the blurbs of his rivals, with particular venom reserved for Jimmy Carr and Ricky Gervais and their brand of cruelty, which builds up to an extraordinary physical set-piece as Lee imagines what it would actually mean for Gervais to ‘say the unsayable’ by giving a completely non-verbal Golden Globes speech. These extended bits are always hilarious – a new one, seemingly genuinely inspired by the Friday-night Nottingham audience, sees him pause on a description of a cesspit and repeat the words ‘The cess’ with a sweeping arm movement for what feels like a century while the audience roll. Lee’s self-deprecation even while he attacks other comedians (he repeatedly turns to one woman, noting that even though she’s probably been dragged along, at least the queue for the ladies is always short at his gigs) is endearing even as he resists endearment, which is a rare skill.

What’s wonderful throughout is how love and reverence for comedians quickly turns to brilliantly pitched bile. The Bond films are a misogynist disaster, so he’s pleased Phoebe Waller-Bridge is being brought on to rewrite them (imagining a weakly-endowed Bond who has to have sex with voles), before suddenly railing against her acclaimed ‘invention’ of direct address and reimagining all twentieth-century live performance without the ability to face the audience. Widdicombe is repeatedly called a source of inspiration before his embarrassing meeting with him, before Lee reveals that the ‘inspiration’ was, as Lee began dealing with his own disability, seeing (the able-bodied) Widdicombe on The Last Leg and realising that if he can do it ‘with whatever he’s got’, so can I. And the revered Alan Bennett gave Lee a review in the London Review of Books (the best literary journal) to Lee’s delight – until he read it and found he was being heralded as ‘The J.L.Austin of stand-up’. Lee gets his own back with a brilliant set-piece as he imagines Sharknado rewritten by Bennett, until an enormous shark appears and chomps up Lee to finish the first half (yes, seriously).

This is the first time I’ve seen Lee live, and what’s so unspeakably brilliant is that the shows are impeccably constructed and yet seem to emerge surprisingly and unexpectedly out of chaos and adlibs. The bits of genuine improvisation are inspired; early in this gig, two people are removed from the front row, only for two skinhead blokes to replace them, a moment that Lee can’t resist picking up on for all its resonance with Brexit Day. And later, when someone shouts out a correct answer to a question, he asks what about their background meant they knew the answer, and the reply is ‘I came on Wednesday night’, which Lee works seamlessly into the commentary on comedy as a form. But everything always ties together beautifully, and as the show finishes with Lee singing an acoustic paeon to political correctness and telling dissenters to fuck off, there’s a joyful feeling that finds hope even from this most deadpan of performers.

THEATRE: Sleeping Beauty (written and directed by Kenneth Alan Taylor for Nottingham Playhouse)

Kicking off with Tim Frater’s Jerry the Jester singing Pharrell Williams’s ‘Happy’ with a glitter-clad posse of dancers synchronised behind him, Nottingham Playhouse’s 2019 panto starts as it means to go on. The Playhouse’s panto is nationally recognised as one of the finest family pantos in the country; eschewing celebrity and smut, it’s an unabashedly wholesome, traditional affair, with enough tweaks and updates to appeal to everyone. And with Sleeping Beauty, it even manages to crowbar in a plot.

A group of fairy-tale characters dancing in sync.
Glitter! Photo: Pamela Raith Photography.

At the christening party for the baby Princess Rosalind, the good Fairy Wisheart (Lisa Ambalavanar) grants Rosalind lifelong wisdom and beauty; but then, evil Maleficent (Toyin Ayedun-Alase) turns up on her chariot and curses the child to death before her twenty-first birthday. Wisheart uses her last gift to commute the sentence to a long sleep until she is woken by true love, and takes the child to grow up in secret in the forest along with Jerry and Nurse Tilly Trott (John Elkington). But on her twenty-first birthday, now grown up into the shape of Maddie Harper, they return her to her parents, King Hubert (Darren Southworth) and Queen Gertrude (Rebecca Little), and Maleficent is waiting…

Sleeping Beauty is always an odd plot for a panto, especially when it puts all the funny characters to sleep along with the princess, so the plot fascinatingly is mostly crowbarred into short sections on either side of the interval, leaving the traditional panto comedy at the start and end. This means that there’s slightly fewer local references than usual, albeit they still manage to crowbar in a diss of my home town, as Maleficent hypnotises Tilly into ‘a dark and desolate place’ ‘Beeston?’ There’s also an interesting division in the cast between the old-school Nottingham crew – the King and Queen, Dame and Jester – and the newbies playing the young lovers, including Louise Dalton giving a thigh-slapping Principal Boy as Prince Alexander. There’s a definite dip in energy as the four regulars are put to sleep along with the princess, leaving the fairies and prince to rattle through the plot as quickly as possible until the spell is broken and the fun starts again.

As ever, it’s Frater and Elkington who are the stars. Frater’s singing and dancing, including an acrobatic solo display, is top-notch, and his easy charm in getting the kids in the audience yelling and chanting along is crucial in setting up the atmosphere early on. And Elkington will hopefully be the Dame forever. Cycling through a series of increasingly implausible costumes, his wry asides, bursts of pop culture (a great reference to Lizzo’s ‘Good as Hell’ is particularly sharp), and interaction with the audience give the adults something to laugh at and also nicely puncture the more earnest parts of the panto. And the songs and band are on point this year, with a fun medley of Elton John and Status Quo, some classic standards, and (of course) a tweeting Song Sheet song with actions from kids brought on stage.

The most fun happens in the penultimate scene, an extended solo set-piece for Elkington in the kitchen. Rosalind brings in an Alexa, and Nurse Tilly goes through an extended routine with Alexa mishearing (while kids in the audience hilariously ‘help’). Then, trying to cook a rabbit pie, Nurse Tilly engages in a long context with a puppet rabbit as he tries to cook it, singing a bit of ‘Bright Eyes’ to lull it to lie down in a pan. The absolutely pointless silliness is the point, and is matched elsewhere by an encounter with a monster in the forest (who runs away as soon as he sees Nurse Tilly’s face) and a hypnotised scene where Tilly sets up the spinning wheel in Rosalind’s bedroom and then walks straight into a wall. It’s just joyful.

Disappointingly, there are a couple of slightly sour notes. While the cast is pleasingly diverse, the racialised evil fairy – complete with West Indian accent and all black outfits – is poorly judged, and while Ayedun-Alase gives the part everything she has, Maleficent is underwritten, given a song (‘Don’t Stop Me Now’) that isn’t right for her, and deprived of a comic sidekick or anything to give her scenes spark. And the characterisation of Queen Gertrude as a nagging harridan who eventually has to be told to shut up by her husband is a convention that should be quietly retired. But the spectacle and literal sparkle are as ‘ooh’-worthy as ever, and the noise from the kids in the audience was deafening. Next year, Beauty and the Beast!

THEATRE: Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman (dir. Bill Buckhurst at Nottingham Playhouse)

‘Everybody’s got the right to be happy’. Sondheim and Weidman’s Assassins – now almost thirty years old – feels like it was written yesterday. It’s almost embarrassingly modish in its interrogation of incel mindsets and fragile masculinity, its depiction of entitled people who feel that society has let them down, and who seek fame (or notoriety) in acts of high-profile violence. That the show invites us to laugh with/at them, if not necessarily to feel sympathy, also invites the audience to reflect on its own complicity in and fascination with the infamous.

A group of people on stage line up holding pom poms in the air
Now let’s get in formation (Photo by The Other Richard)

Simon Kenny’s set is all Americana, decorated as if the actors are standing within the Stars and Stripes itself. The setting is a shooting gallery, with the smiling Proprietor (Joey Hickman) wearing a ten-gallon hat and dispensing revolvers from a vending machine. The wooden balconies and walls give the impression of end-of-the-pier arcade, the deliberate trivialisation of violence suggesting that murder is a kind of holiday activity. While the Proprietor feels less important here than in other productions I’ve seen, his constant, smiling presence is a troubling reminder of an America that smiles as it takes money and hands out weapons.

The main draw of Bill Buckhurst’s production – which premiered at the Watermill before transferring to Nottingham – is the chance to see fifteen extraordinary actor-dancer-musicians give a bravura performance. The cast are the band, and even the choreography of watching them switch roles, even swapping the piano and MD role mid-number, is a pleasure. Chris Full’s sound design, Georgina Lamb’s choreography, and Catherine Jayes’ musical arrangement are essential here, as saxes, clarinets, double basses, banjos and flutes get picked up and put down, integrated with the voices, all seamlessly. It allows the instruments to become characters, the different sounds all intervening to replace the voice of the actor who has just finished singing and turned to their instrument. As a feat of technical skill alone, the production is a triumph.

The nine assassins are distinguished nicely from one another, and all bring a different energy to the mix. The show’s construction is quite brilliant, interweaving the individual stories of each person to assassinate (or attempt to assassinate) a US president with imagined out-of-time meetings in the shooting gallery. Eight of the assassins interact constantly throughout, with Lee Harvey Oswald’s appearance (Ned Rudkins-Stow) held back until the final twenty minutes for impact, as the other eight, led by the sinister, mustachioed John Wilkes Booth (Alex Mugnaioni), persuade the suicidal Oswald to make them immortal and give their acts purpose by shooting Kennedy. This, one of the production’s darker scenes as it reflects on the eternal fame of Oswald through referencing Brutus, captures something of the historical pressure that creates, as well as records, murderers.

But mostly, this is a darkly funny variety show. The Balladeer is unusually played by a woman, Lillie Flynn, and her country girl, thumbs-in-waistband, hoedown reading of the role lends a country-and-western feel to the show’s storytelling that lightens the tone and mythologises the stories, while also brilliantly juxtaposing with the darker edges. A standout in this respect is ‘The Ballad of Guiteau’, as Charles Guiteau (Eddie Elliott) veers between terror at the noose awaiting him (‘I am going to the Lord-y’), and jazz hands and show dance as he sings ‘Always look on the bright side’; the Balladeer takes over the cheery demeanour as he ascends the steps, adapting Guiteau’s own self-mythologisation into her own even as the reality sinks in for him. The shared ballad between John Hinckley (Jack Quarton) and Squeaky Fromme (Evelyn Hoskins) as they sing to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson respectively (complete with mirrorball) offers a weirdly sweet manifestation of the delusions that led them to attempted murder; and the barbershop quartet ode to guns led by Leon Czolgosz (Peter Dukes) has some beautiful harmonies as four of the would-be or actual assassins fondle their weapons.

The constant busy-ness of the stage means there’s almost too much to take in. There are indelible images – the assassins wrapping the Balladeer in an American flag during ‘Another National Anthem’; the flames licking round the edges of the stage as Booth’s hunters finally catch up with him and set fire to the barn in which he is hiding; and the breathless delivery of Samuel Byck’s (Steve Simmonds) sweary invectives at both Richard Nixon and Leonard Bernstein, a big man in a Santa suit swigging beer and sounding off at a world that has rejected him. But what the production really nails is the show’s sense that killers both exist in isolation and as part of an imagined community of killers – and the lure and thrill of that community and history, inextricably tied to American values, is as much to blame as the individuals themselves.

THEATRE: LIT by Sophie Ellerby (directed by Stef O’Driscoll for Nottingham Playhouse)

The play opens with a young woman on a maternity ward, talking to her newborn baby, about to be parted from her. She wants to pick her up and hug her, but knows that doing so will make what is about to happen all the harder. It’s a moment that represents in miniature the pull-push of Bex (Eve Austin), protagonist and near-constant onstage presence in Sophie Ellerby’s LIT, between wanting and resisting. Bex is fourteen, orphaned and living in care, desperate for love, but scared of letting anyone close, even her own daughter.

LIT In Production | Eve Austin, Josh Barrow,  Jim Pope | Photo by Craig Sugden
The company form the caravan where Lee hosts his ‘lit’ parties. Photo by Craig Sugden.

Ellerby’s script is tight and confident, speaking in a Notts working-class patter that feels genuine and unforced. Scenes are introduced by beautifully designed cut-out placards that cast the title of the scene (‘Bex rescues Ruth’, ‘Bex dances alone’) against the back wall, telling Bex’s story in short episodic bursts. After the opening scene, the action flashes back to the events that led her there: bonding with her foster mother Sylvia (Maxine Finch), who then gives her up when diagnosed with depression; befriending geek Ruth (Tiger Cohen-Towell) and her father Mark (Jim Pope), starting to date Dillon (Josh Barrow), and going to parties at the caravan belonging to Dillon’s brother Lee (Kieran Hardcastle), slowly descending towards disaster.

Austin is magnetic as the lonely but confident Bex. She can talk for England, and her unfettered energy overwhelms those around her to the point where they will do anything for her. But she’s badly broken by her mother’s suicide and her sense that everyone leaves her. The early scenes build up a tender relationship between her and her foster mother, Sylvia showing a huge amount of patience in the face of Bex’s extreme mood swings and screaming fits, and Bex lovingly helping Sylvia prepare for a date. The scene in which Sylvia admits that Bex has to leave her is heartbreaking, Finch capturing Sylvia’s sense of failure as Bex screams at her.

Without parental figures – we never see anyone from the care home Bex moves to – Bex struggles to find parameters. When we first meet boyfriend Dillon, she has sucked him off in detention, the two getting themselves into even deeper trouble. Dillon himself is a mess, at one point posting a picture of her giving him head which is passed around the school, at other times seeming to want to treat her as his girlfriend. Ellerby beautifully catches the combination of self-respect and desire for attention that keeps Bex attached to Dillon despite his obvious flaws, and especially after she begins visiting the caravan. Minglu Wang’s stunning set is built around some large illuminated frames which, when put together, make up the caravan at which most of the play’s drama happens. When Bex is raped by Lee early in the play, she internalises it, seems to blame herself, and even keeps going back to spend time with Dillon. Despite what is done to her, the lack of institutional interest in her, and her estrangement from carers, seems to give her few options.

The other key relationship is with Ruth, beautifully played by Cohen-Towell, whose restrained sarcasm and quiet admiration contrast with Bex’s outgoing and sweary persona. Ruth and Mark represent the possibility of safety for Bex, but Bex’s self-destructive tendencies damage the relationship – first when she makes a pass at Mark after he rescues her from the caravan, and then when she takes Ruth to a party there after Ruth feels the need to prove she isn’t as ‘boring and frigid’ as Bex says she is. Cohen-Towell is hilarious as she gets wasted at the party, but as Lee takes her into the caravan, Bex’s love for her friend takes over and she gets her friend out of there, but not before Ruth has sustained lasting damage.

Ellerby has constructed a compelling contemporary tragedy, where a character full of wit and joy and love is repeatedly abandoned by people – some well-meaning, some who try to hurt her, but all of whom ultimately let her down. When she returns to the caravan with petrol and a match, the double meaning of the play’s title becomes clear, as Lee’s ‘lit’ parties lead ultimately to his caravan being differently lit; Austin draws deep for her screaming grief as she calls out Lee as a rapist and prepares to burn it all down. While the play doesn’t reveal Lee’s eventual fate, Bex finds herself in prison for four years and giving birth to Lee’s child, and we return to where we came in. But in a chilling final moment, Bex turns to the audience, looks us over coldly, and tells us that she knows what we probably think of her; but fuck what we think, as she’s going to do everything she can to fight for her child. It’s an empowering moment, the character taking ownership of her own narrative and refusing to be beaten, as much as the system wants her to be.

THEATRE: An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz (dir. Adam Penford for Nottingham Playhouse)

An Enemy of the People couldn’t be more timely. On the one hand, the story of a doctor trying to raise awareness of the local government’s complicity in covering up a crisis of contaminated water has obvious parallels with the ongoing scandal in Flint. On the other, a situation in which an intellectual elite find themselves at odds with a majority of ordinary people over what is in the people’s best interest can’t help but evoke Brexit. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation – first staged in 2008 but revised here – touches most clearly on the latter, but its political stance remains somewhat unclear.

A woman stands on a podium in rain while a crowd listens.
The cast stand in the rain for a LONG time. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

The key innovation of this production is the gender reversal of several of the characters, including newspaper editor-activist Hovstad (Emma Pallant) and the central married couple, Teresa Stockman (Alex Kingston) and her husband Christopher (Deka Walmsley), and their two youngest children, giving them three daughters. The regendering was the most effective part of the adaptation, well integrated to set Dr Stockman as an almost-lone woman (and for a time with Hovstad as her ally) against a belligerent male-dominated authority. Dr Stockman wanted to set an example for her young daughters and to resist a patriarchy that consolidated itself to crush her when challenged.

The problem is that you don’t make a text feminist simply by giving the leading role to a woman. Dr Stockman is a conflicted character, who is right in his/her research into the contamination of the water supply on which the town’s baths and local industry rely, but who is entirely and unforgivably naive about what the effect of this on the town will be, and who is an elitist snob, living comfortably and unconcerned with how this devastating news will affect working people. As a man, Dr Stockman embodies another facet of blinkered male ego and self-interest – it is notable that she almost never shows an interest in the poisoned victims she has treated, instead hinging her arguments on philosophical principles. Turning her into a woman and making the play about gendered differences, however, has the effect of setting up a dichotomy between women as uninformed, naive, emotional, and unable to communicate effectively; and men as pragmatic, collective, effective, and community-minded. It’s only the fact that Dr Stockman is right, and that her brother Peter, the mayor, is so hissably evil in his attempts to cover up the truth, that keeps her sympathetic.

The problems with Dr Stockman sit at the heart of the adaptation’s difficulties. Her isolationist approach – she didn’t even tell her loving family that she was researching the pollution – turns immediately to victory and an expectation of some sort of adulation upon receiving the results of the water tests, and this premature smugness in victory is symptomatic of a character who is driven more by ego than compassion. Kingston plays the character with all the zeal of a campaigner, and in the early scenes it seems that Hovstad and local community organiser Aslaksen (Tim Samuels) will be swept along with her. Malcolm Sinclair is magnificent as Peter, though. He is the best-written character, and his puritanical, purse-lipped, methodical manner conceals a razor-sharp mind. He understand people much, much better than his sister, and as he poisons the newspaper staff against her, the play comes into its own. The problem is that, rather than really explore the politics, Lenkiewicz and Penford read this instead as a one-note ‘woman vs the world’ empowerment narrative, which concludes with her insisting that a woman always stands alone, even as the family who have supported her unquestioningly throughout the play are whisked away by a retracting stage, sacrificing the production’s own emotional work for a shallow final image.

Morgan Large’s set is all IKEA and modern Scandinavia, with a backdrop of thick pine trees capturing the rainy atmosphere that comes to a head in the second half at an outdoor rally where Dr Stockman speaks in the pouring rain. It’s an aesthetic rather than an exploration of a specific time or place, though, and Theresa’s disastrous appearance before the people is the most clearly political part of the production. The cast is swelled by an uncredited (unpaid?) community chorus, who are used abysmally in the first half to change the set and stand around woodenly; here, they offer a mass to show the effectiveness of Peter’s ability to turn a crowd against his sister. Theresa’s appeal to the crowd, though, is so ill-judged that it barely needed the resistance. Speaking loftily of truth and philosophy to a group of people worried about their livelihoods, she is shouted down and branded an enemy of the people. The sense is that the production is sympathetic to her, but it feels reactionary. Here, the person who is ‘right’ about what is happening is clearly painted as a member of the intellectual elite, out of touch and almost incomprehensible in her rambling harangue, while repeatedly saying that stupid people shouldn’t have a vote. It feels like any number of Daily Mail attacks on Remainers or climate change scientists as an insular, anti-democratic elite.

There’s a lot of great work among the cast. Pallant is superb as the activist who feels personally betrayed when Peter gets under her skin. Samuels offers comic relief as a community activist who doesn’t want to annoy the local authorities, and his repeated appeals to ‘restraint’ have a bathetic timing that continually reinforces his sense of rightness. And Walmsley is quietly sympathetic as the stay-at-home dad who appeals to his wife to think about their children, and who supports from the shadows while never hiding his own fears. Kingston’s performance, however, is pitched too high too early; the unpleasant early smugness turns almost immediately to high energy anger and distress, and the adaptation gives her too much to try and bring together at once, leaving it unclear throughout what is really driving her. It’s a production with a great deal of potential, but which seems too confused about its own purpose to offer a clear throughline.