Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Knot of the Heart – Almeida Theatre until April 30th

Main production image - from almeida.co.uk

A frank and involving examination of addiction within the comfortable world of the North London middle class, with outstanding performances from Lisa Dillon and Kieran Bew.

During a brief cat-sitting stay in Islington I’ve been making the most of the local theatre. Time only allowed for two shows, but they couldn’t have been more different, or surprising in the way that they contrasted – in content, setting and the demography of the audience. On Sunday I saw La Bohème, a low budget opera at a pub theatre on Upper Street. Tuesday night took me to the Almeida. Unlike may be supposed, the opera was filled with a mix of young and old of all classes, but The Knot of the Heart, a gritty tale of drug abuse and desperation, was viewed by what appeared to be an audience of entirely well-to-do Islingtonites. Fantastic to see that theatre of such variety and differing appeal can be playing within such a tiny radius.

Both productions had a very strong sense of place. David Eldridge wrote The Knot with both the Almeida and lead actress Lisa Dillon in mind. The result is a play that is shocking and revelatory about the reality of addiction amongst the privileged, but also immediately relevant due to the proximity of its setting. It follows Dillon as Lucy, a children’s TV presenter, through three years dominated by heroin and a destructive codependency with her quietly alcoholic mother. Dillon is fantastic in combining the harsh reality of drug dependence with the childlike qualities that make Lucy at once human and pathetic. The part was conceived by Eldridge after a conversation with Dillon where she expressed a desire for a role that was ‘not defined by its relationship to a man,’ – he has come up with a truly fantastic realisation of that request.

Lisa Dillon & Margot Leicester. Image from telegraph.co.uk.

In fact, men are almost incidental to the plot. All of the male roles are played (with great skill) by Kieran Dew – as a variety of drug addicts, healthcare professionals and romantic interests. Lucy’s torment is entirely isolated from romance – not spurred by a break-up or heartbreak, but instead a very personal implosion brought on by ambition, rootlessness and a lack of any real responsibilities or established boundaries. The narrative is all the stronger for this, posing the difficult question for Lucy of what is to blame for her terrible situation. As an individual who has had every opportunity and connection, there is nobody that can be held responsible for her breakdown than herself and her ‘perfect’ family. The mother-daughter relationship is at the centre of this story, which channels into the modern dilemma of when parental ties need to be tempered for the good of both parties, and when it is right to be ‘cruel to be kind’.

Eldridge’s fantastic script is not all doom and gloom however – the comedy of certain situations and Lucy’s humour shine through to provide welcome comic relief. Witnessing this very harrowing and real story is eye-opening without being taxing – a fine balance that is difficult to achieve but is demonstrated here with exceptional results.

All of these elements are combined in a beautiful theatre – a real gem of the fringe. Complimented by a lively bar and a reasonably priced (£3) and informative programme (sponsored by Coutt’s as another indicator of the usual calibre of the clientele…) the Almeida have hit upon a winning formula. Extremely highly recommended.

The Knot of the Heart is playing at the Almeida until Saturday night (April 30th).

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La Bohème – King’s Head Theatre (in rep) until May 29th

A new version of Puccini that has without doubt fulfilled OperaUpClose‘s mission to ‘bring opera to audiences who ordinarily might avoid it.’ Set in a Dalston flat and the bar of an Upper Street pub, this is certainly a welcome surprise of a production and could be the first step of this little company truly bringing opera to the masses.

This is OperaUpClose’s first production, and after picking up an Olivier for best new opera and a Whatsonstage.com award for best Off-West End production, it’s safe to say that it’s gone pretty well. After debuting in December 2010 at the Cock Tavern in Kilburn, the run lasted 6 months, transferred to the Soho Theatre and then to the King’s Head Pub Theatre as the longest continuously performed opera in history. The initial budget was only £7,000 and all participants signed up for only a share of the (hardly anticipated) profits. This is certainly an opera that has been run on passion and a prayer, which is oddly fitting for a play revolving around a bunch of penniless bohemians who we first meet burning a manuscript for warmth.

First I must make a confession. I am certainly no opera nut. I am a musicals lass through and through and have never made any real effort to see opera in the past, I was quite surprised to find that multiple casts rotate and that a full script was provided in the programme. However, as this makes me a prime candidate for OperaUpClose, I’ll not fret about it too much.

This was without doubt a fresh and relevant production. The script has been tweaked to refer to each location of the production, and the back room of the King’s Head, reminiscent of a rundown room in an old student union, with a thick layer of dust on the grand piano, seemed like an apt setting as the flat of the skint twenty-something bachelors. Being sung in English by a cast whose age reflects that of their characters has made this production youthful and accessible to a greater range of audience members. Peering around the auditorium to see a mix of pensioners and young fashionable Shoreditch-types showed just how democratic this version of opera can be.

The second act was (unexpectedly for me) performed in the bar area of the pub. These surprises and twists brought the play to life and bang up to date. It also feels like a natural interpretation of the story – huge credit must be given to Robin Norton-Hale for adapting a script first performed in 1896 to the current day so successfully that it could incorporate the word ‘chav’ without seeming at all out of place.

This is not, however, a faultless production for the have-a-go opera viewer. Audiences who do not know the story may get lost in the details of the narrative, as the diction is not the same as in traditional musicals (that’s where that script comes in handy). Also, the rotating casts that have been employed have let a mix of talents in. Most of the cast that I saw were excellent – Nicolas Dwyer as Marcello and Rosie Bell as Musetta especially stood out – yet the actor who played Rodolfo, a central character, is only credited in the programme as ‘Associate Artist’ and looked lacklustre against the rest.

It won’t have me rushing out to a major, traditional opera but has certainly taken some of the edge and fear away from the idea. Whilst I’m not ready to take the giant leap just yet, I would certainly return to one of OperaUpClose’s productions. It looks like this little company could go a long way.

La Bohème is at the King’s Head Pub Theatre (performed in rep) until May 29th.

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