Beloved by school drama departments because of its easy to grasp lessons in political allegory, it is surprising there hasn’t been a major London production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle for 25 years. Brave then, perhaps, for a big venue like Kingston-Upon-Thames’ Rose Theatre to take it on. Having seen the show, it feels churlish to wish they’d been braver still, yet I do.
This is a largely faithful new version of Brecht’s esteemed work adapted by Steve Waters and directed by The Rose’s Artistic Director Christopher Hayden. There’s no questioning the calibre of talent involved. They’ve spent a lot too. It’s an epically ambitious main house show. The play-within-a-play’s opening is set in an unnamed contemporary refugee camp. We could be in Kakuma amongst Somalis who have been stateless for thirty years. We could be in Jordan’s Azraq camp amongst 80,000 who fled Syria. Frustratingly, however, we feel distant from the blood and tears of any of today’s real tragedies. Any other author, I’d say fine, enjoy, but we’re dealing with in-your-face angry old Bertolt Brecht here, folks.
The framing device doesn’t give us much time to worry though. We’re soon into the eponymous tale of revolution and snatched babies. We are led, for act one at least, by the tremendously likeable Zoe West as The Singer. Foregoing a band of musicians, she wields her guitar as a solo master of ceremonies with a sardonic detachment reminiscent, to me at least, of folk-meister Billy Bragg. After the interval, Jonathan Slinger arrives to figuratively and literally hold court as Judge Azdack. It’s a stonking performance that deserved the laughter when it came. I suspect there could have been more but audiences, these days, are just too exhausted by Trump references, corruption, money-grabbing and the rest. Surely it wasn’t beyond Waters and Hayden to be more original and lampoon our current leaders more directly. New Home Secretary and former barrister, Suella Braverman talks enough nonsense about the law. Too risky for the leafy suburbs? I do hope that’s not the reason.
A sense of risks being averted applies to the direction too. There’s a lot of walking, running and marching on the spot, for example. Characters climb up and down ladders. Lamps fly in and out at key moments. There’s plenty of comic business including a genuine custard pie to the face at one point. All these choices are beautifully performed, but none feel particularly surprising or revelatory. Thank God, therefore, for the music. This is categorically not a musical, but there are plenty of songs. Composer Michael Henry’s work lifts the mood and provides welcome commentary. Most importantly, it is full of melody, rich in harmony and lyrically smart. I’d certainly be in the queue for a cast recording.
Much has been made in the show’s marketing about musical theatre star Carrie Hope Fletcher. Her portrayal of Grusha Vashnadze apparently marks her first sojourn into ‘straight’ theatre. This smells of PR spin and, excellent as Ms Fletcher is, it’s hard to see what the fuss is about. She plays, without fanfare, as part of an incredibly strong ensemble cast. This includes the young boy at the heart of the story who steals hearts with a joyful and not unskilled bit of dance at the conclusion.
Everything, in fact, is strong. Can I fault costumes, set design, lighting or sound? Not a bit. Why, then, do I seem unwilling to rave more? It’s because, and I’m conscious you might be here as a form of escapism, so apologies, but the world appears to be on fire. Putin is unhinged. Italy has elected self-proclaimed Fascists and our government seems determined to help itself rather than the poor and vulnerable. All this makes a gently pleasing, middle-of-the-road production of Brecht seem pretty unforgivable. We could have left the theatre burning with righteous anger. As it was, we drifted off into the Surrey night satisfied, but largely unmoved. The revolution? Delayed again.
Written by: Bertold Brecht
Adapted by: Steve Waters
Directed by: Christopher Haydon
Composer & Musical Direction by: Michael Henry
Set & Costume Design by: Oli Townsend
Produced by: Rose Theatre & MGC
Associate Producer: Kater Gordon
The Caucasian Chalk Circle plays at Rose Theatre Kingston until 22 October. Further information and bookings can be found here.