Reviews: An August Bank Holiday Lark, Wonderful Tennessee, Spring Awakening

An August Bank Holiday Lark
An August Bank Holiday Lark
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An August Bank Holiday Lark, Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, ****

I feel sorry for Southerners sometimes. When a show like this comes along you realise that we really do have a lot of which to be proud around these parts – and it is only us lot that can really understand a play like this. While around the country they might see it, you need to be from up north to really get it.

To borrow a quote, it’s like the difference between listening to Jimi Hendrix and being able to hear him.

With a title taken from a Philip Larkin poem, Deborah McAndrew has written a play that is ostensibly about the horror of the First World War and the idea of it as an unknown monster, lurking outside the door for communities across the country. Really this play is about family and what that word means in the very broadest sense.

In the hills above North Lancashire, just across the Pennines, life is rolling on. Feuds over flowerbed-ruining chickens and blossoming young love are the order of the day. Everything is geared around the annual revealing of the rushcart. Then the war kicks the door down and everything changes.

This vigorously danced, beautifully acted play is the story of a Northern mill town that speaks with sadness about the futility of war and an undercurrent of anger at those men who led a campaign littered with the bodies of dispensable working class, ordinary lads.

You might not realise this is an important play because, especially with the clog dancing, it is also an awful lot of fun.

• Various Yorkshire

Wonderful Tennessee, Sheffield Lyceum ***

By a fairly long shot, the weakest of the three productions that make up the Brian Friel Season, this play actually goes to show the real strength of Sheffield Theatres’ brilliant notion of having a single writer celebrated with a single season.

Had this piece arrived as a stand-alone, the question would certainly be: why? Well, do it on its own, and you would be justified in questioning the sanity of the decision maker. However, in this context it allows the audience to build a more complete picture of Friel as one of Ireland’s greatest living writers.

A complicated set of relationships, involving spouses, brothers and sisters come together with six people on a beach in County Donegal. Moneyed bookie Terry has brought the extended family to a beach to look at an island – an island, it transpires, he has bought.

As a slice of life, Friel is deftly observant here, painting characters that feel like they have the weight of reality and therefore arrive with years of story behind them.

It has been said that the play is an exploration of the loss of tradition and where that leaves us in the modern age. It actually feels all rather inconsequential. Come the end of the story, it feels like you have been left with several hints of stories happening, entangled relationships among the six, but nothing is ever brought to fruition.

Spring Awakening, West Yorkshire Playhouse **

Bill Hicks died 20 years ago. So when a play invokes Hicks today, it really ought to be doing something at least vaguely postmodern.

To simply quote the comedian – and to quote one of his rare missteps (it’s a quote about sex that appears to forget the liberation of the female libido) without any reason other than it is vaguely shocking reveals the immaturity at the heart of this new production.

It’s supposed to be immature, it’s about teenagers and the confusion felt at a sexual awakening. Well, Dennis Kelly’s brilliant DNA and the Playhouse’s own youth theatre production Girls Like That were both about teenagers and the difficult things faced in adolescence, but neither of those plays induced quite the eye-rolling of this production. If you’re shouting ‘look at this, aren’t I shocking?’ then you kind of negate the shock value.

This is the first production in a three-year collaboration between the Playhouse and highly respected theatre company Headlong – who have an impressive track record, so this weak first venture is not too much cause for concern. Based on the controversial Frank Wedekind play, Anya Reiss has updated the German play which was banned in England for a number of years.

At its heart an exploration of the difficulties of being a teenager and the confusion of sexual awakening. Reiss walks straight into the pitfall of forgetting that teenage angst is quite dull without a reason to care about the characters.

It needs more than Skype and video streamed-suicides to make it compelling.

• To March 22.