I have missed live theatre. As such, King Lear's opening night (Monday 21 June 2021) at Stokesay Court evoked a heightened expectation. The show did not disappoint.
Beforehand, you should allow a little time to meander the private road of this stunning country house, and to cover the short walk from the car with your chair, coat and picnic. The site staff are extremely welcoming and be reassured that a take-away refreshments cabin and toilets are close at hand. In these times, it gives peace of mind to know there's plenty of space to maintain what social distance is appropriate.
As the longest day of the year waned, the production's 1980s iconography took the zenith. Bold red and black set design, power suits, Dynasty dresses, dosh in briefcases... every emblem of the greed-is-good decade blazed the stage. Power-grabs, violence, swindle and the disintegration of family and authority were given a Cockney voice in this production, and drew comparison with that TV soap Eastenders when it first dramatically splashed across our screens almost 40 years ago. A deft piece of choreography cued the collapse of Lear's world as one Smooth Criminal after another pursued their own advantage to the ruination of society.
A true ensemble piece, all brought their best to make this a very watchable show. There were tender moments, such as those between Gloucester (Mark Topping) and Lear (John Deeth) at the play's closing. The artful cunning of Edmund (Dan Wilby), Regan (Emily Summers) and Goneril (Livia King) brought savagery, in word and deed, cutting deep into the emotional heart and of course, the eyes. Amongst the human wreckage, Lear's Fool (Kevin Dewsbury) quipped the hollow humour of the 80s social commentary comedian with aplomb. With exceptional sound and lighting to boot, this is a fine piece of meaningful Shakespeare.
The only time I have been left speechless at the end of a film was when I watched 'The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas'. The horror of what had just played out, added to the fact that it was based in truth, rendered me gawping like a guppy fish at the screen.
That is exactly how I was struck after watching 'The System', written by Edward Loboda, who also starred as one of the characters, Blake.
Where to begin?
Firstly, I was amazed at how well the plot and the characters played out on the screen. This was recorded on Zoom due to Covid restrictions, and it was astonishing how powerful it was via a recording. In fact, some of the elements of live theatre which can prove cumbersome ie.slow scene changes and prop malfunctions, were not an issue, and led to a seamless, smooth performance.
Secondly, the originality of the writing made an immediate impact. It ostensibly appeared to be about an ordinary family, parents and a grown up son, chatting about the challenges of their day and how stressful and overwhelming their daily jobs are. The son has just returned from a job interview, and there is a clever exchange of dialogue about how the interview has gone etc.. All this gives it a completely contemporary feel, and brings it slap bang up to date. It will also resonate with most people, as it is about everyday life and everyday things which we all experience, and our usual responses to them.
Thirdly, the cast is incredibly small, only 6 characters, and there is an adage which says 'keep it simple'. The plot is simple but extremely effective, and the fact that there are only 6 characters makes it move effortlessly between scenes, and also introduces the audience to the storyline and the characters instantly, which just adds to the professional feel of the whole performance.
Where it truly scores, however, is in the tension -filled, jaw dropping revelation of the plot by the characters as they appear. It opens with what appears to be a mundane work based conversation between over worked Maisie, played superbly by Dawn Butler, and her slightly harassed looking husband Danny, played with distracted, 'stressed out' aplomb by Morgan Rees-Davies. Their son, Blake, played by the writer of the piece Edward Loboda, then makes an entrance, having just been for a job interview. Loboda strikes just the right balance between slightly arrogant son who's parents seem to do everything for him, and slightly vulnerable son who wishes he could be more independent.
On the heels of this exchange, we are introduced to Claire, who is Maisie's assistant. At this juncture, their work discussion just evolves around a pile of files which, at this point in the story, appears to be large in volume and which are causing some consternation as to how they will be processed. The exact nature of their work is not disclosed.
Finally, we are introduced to outgoing, outspoken seventy year old Iva, played to perfection by Ellie Darvill, and her grandson, a grandchild any grandparent would be happy to call their own, played brilliantly and sympathetically by Liam Alexandru.
Upon the revelation that Maisie and Danny work for a Government department called 'DOSE', I found myself clenching my fists, and sitting on the edge of my seat. There was something chilling about the way this was dropped into the dialogue, and it had a sombre and doom-filled edge to it, an Armageddon feel, which, as the plot is divulged, is completely borne out.
Phrases such as 'It's for the good of everyone' 'These laws have been around for centuries' and the inference that the State has a Big Brother style control to it, gives it a spine tingling parallel to a post -Covid world, and when the acronym DOSE is finally explained, the fist clenching is turned into eye widening horror.
Normally in a review, more of the plot would be revealed, but I can only say that a 'spoiler alert' is absolutely necessary here. It has to be that audiences see this without much prior knowledge of the plot line.
This piece is so beautifully and expertly crafted that it has all the tension of something like 'Time', written by Jimmy McGovern. It has an originality and modern feel to it, which is one of it's powerful hooks as a production.
The reason why some pieces make such an impact is because the scenario which they portray could be totally accurate and could actually happen in real life, and this is the key to the success of 'The System'. It is one hundred percent believable. As the viewer, you begin to think you grasp what is happening, but do not want to contemplate it. The way the plot is released is so cleverly done, as to make you convinced that you know what the outcome is going to be, but equally it is truly too awful to acknowledge, and, when your worst fears are confirmed, the real horror of what is unfolding leaves you cold.
Whilst this piece worked well online, I should imagine on stage it will have the brilliantly terrifying tension of 'The Woman In White', and it will be a crime if there is not a film made of this by 2025. You heard it here first!
Love Midlands Theatre
Sharing the latest theatre news and reviews around the Midlands.