The week in theatre: Missing; Holy Sh!t; The Humans – review

Battersea Arts Centre; Kiln; Hampstead, London
Missing reappears three years after fire interrupted its run at the Battersea Arts Centre, while the Kiln opens with some topical grievances

These are whirligig weeks for London theatre. Last week, Madani Younis let it be known that he was moving from the Bush to be the creative director of the South Bank, while Rachel O’Riordan was announced as the replacement for Sean Holmes as the head of the Lyric Hammersmith. Not long before, Edward Hall had said that after nine years he was quitting Hampstead.

The complexion of artistic directors is – well, possibly – becoming less white and male. Will this have a decisive effect on programming and casting? We may get a hint over the next month, when the new heads of Stratford East and the Young Vic, Nadia Fall and Kwame Kwei-Armah, open their first seasons.

Meanwhile, two theatres have put in place emphatic new aesthetics. What used to be the Tricycle has reopened after two years as the Kiln: on press day there was a pavement protest about the name change. Across town, Battersea Arts Centre reopened its Grand Hall, ravaged by fire three years ago, with a decisive agenda.

I’ve never forgotten seeing – from a train – the flames ripping through the building. Or, having looked at the charred shell of the hall, stopped being amazed that no one was hurt. Gecko, the company performing in the Grand Hall at the time, had their props, costumes and sets destroyed. But Pluto the theatre cat strolled out unsinged from the inferno, a furry embodiment of the regeneration myth.

A plan was hatched within days. The collaboration between architects Haworth Tompkins and artistic director David Jubb should continue – still more vibrantly. This involved the opening up of the building begun in 2007 with Punchdrunk’s Masque of the Red Death, when new links between spaces were discovered: I remember escaping from a room through a fireplace.

Architecture should be led by the requirements of the work. Spaces would be provisional, not polished. And look now at the beauty of that: rooms that are kitted out with equipment but look from an interior decorator’s perspective unfinished; they are waiting for artists to move in. A lovely corridor flanking the great hall is rough brick, lit by dangling lamps throwing their lights on elaborately carved doors. In the Great Hall, the walls remain scorched, but the new filigree lattice roof is a jig of shade and light, bringing a touch of the Alhambra to Lavender Hill.

Amit Lahav andn Katie Lusby in Missing.
Amit Lahav andn Katie Lusby in Missing. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Gecko’s Missing now finishes its run that was interrupted by the fire. It is visually arresting and narratively opaque: a woman’s background, marriage and disintegration are conjured rather than illuminated. The cast glide between memory and action in a series of elegant flickering images. A couple strain towards and pull away from one another on a sofa in a dance of astonishment, as if twanging together on elastic bands. A woman in a red dress is caught in a flare of light as if she were on fire. Her outstretched hand is framed in a screen, as if chopped off from her body and preserved in ice. The speech is intermittently clear – a mingle of different languages as if we were spinning through Europe by twisting on the dial of a radio. Beautiful moments stud but don’t illuminate the baffling story.

I am against most name changes (not all – I would not want to live in Adolf Hitler Avenue): I was surprised by how low-key the grumbling was when the National suddenly dubbed the Cottesloe the Dorfman. But the Kiln is apt for a theatre that aims to bubble and be fiery. And the change has been made. Let’s move on.

Into the gorgeous place created by Chapman Architects. It is smarter than the old theatre but no less welcoming. Artistic director Indhu Rubasingham says that the aim has been to make “a better version of ourselves”. The building has been opened out, uncovered, made brighter. A glass-fronted cafe (the default facade for theatres) beckons you in; the dusky entrance hall is illuminated by a skylight; there are nine ladies’ loos downstairs. The stage has been made flexible. The auditorium is radiant, with ultra-comfortable orange-red seats and a frieze of hardboard painted with gold leaf, which under lights looks like a strip of cornfield. The sight-obscuring pillars, the cramping scaffolding have gone, along with the beatnik black: that doesn’t mean the spirit has vanished. The authenticity in the old Tricycle might have been signalled by scruffiness and some discomfort, but it wasn’t brought about by them.

Rubasingham’s lively opening production is a cleverly layered debate play. Alexis Zegerman’s Holy Sh!t intertwines more than one topical crisis. In the absence of properly funded state education, how can your child ensure a place at a successful non-fee-paying school? Two couples want their girlies to go to the local church primary. The Obasis (Daon Broni and Claire Goose) are Christians; Daniel Lapaine and Dorothea Myer-Bennett are both Jewish: he is an atheist, she is semi-observant. But “on your knees to avoid the fees”. Myer-Bennett starts going to church, where she dazzlingly unleashes avid warbling of hymns. The kids fall out (a la Yasmina Reza and God of Carnage). Their row raises spectres. Are the Bronis tainted with antisemitism and their “friends” with another kind of racism (Obasi is black)? Who suffers more, a woman starved of work or one deprived of time with her child?

Claire Goose and Daon Broni in Holy Sh!t at the Kiln.
Claire Goose and Daon Broni in Holy Sh!t at the Kiln. Photograph: Mark Douet

The escalation of grudges is deft and accurate; Rubasingham’s production is pacy, the actors nimble. But since all hidden grievances eventually rise to the surface, a drama that begins with plenty of sediment has eventually no subtext.

In this week of departures and new starts, a wonderful Westminster Abbey service for Peter Hall heard, among others, Vanessa Redgrave spitting out Corinthians as if love were an argument. The thing that makes me carry Hall in my heart is a schoolgirl memory of watching his intense 60s The Wars of the Roses on telly. Weirdly, the most stirring productions by his son Edward have been his all-male Propeller Shakespeares. His only equally bold move – a real soaring – at Hampstead has been the marvellous Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon.

Joe Mantello’s accomplished Broadway production of The Humans comes to Hampstead trailing success. It slips down easily – that’s to say with some snaps, and discomfort; it brings in another element with hints at the supernatural. But there is no moment of utter surprise.

Stephen Karam’s play has a gran with dementia, a mother battling with her weight and a dad with a secret. One daughter can’t get a job. Her sister is on the skids at work, has been left by her girlfriend – and has ulcerative colitis. They all bicker, do competitive endearments and slide towards financial distress. As they do so, the drama becomes less naturalistic and more spooky: there are bad dreams, hauntings from 9/11 and weird noises – the magnified flush of the lav sounds like Niagara Falls. I couldn’t understand why the father, who has spent his life as a maintenance engineer, cannot work out what the booms and clangs are that ring through the apartment. My subtlest theatre friend tells me that his not knowing while being equipped to do so is exactly the point. I was impressed by that. And by the naturalism – unsparingly lumpy – of the acting. This is an accomplished production. But there is a gag in the play about what gives an alien a fright: a human being. I rather longed for an inhuman to take over and truly startle us.

The Humans – trailer

Star ratings (out of 5)
Missing ★★★
Holy Sh!t ★★★
The Humans ★★★

Holy Sh!t is at the Kiln, London, until 6 October

The Humans is at Hampstead theatre, London, until 13 October


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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