Feeling Good About Hackney Blues

Originally published in Hackney Today (here) and on Hackney Council Website (here).

Having his play about legendary blues musician Robert Johnson performed at the Hackney Empire is his biggest career achievement to date for playwright and Dalston resident Dave Hall.

It was originally performed as a two-hander while he was studying philosophy at Cambridge University, then taken to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it garnered critical acclaim.

Dave Hall

Now Belfast-born Dave – who writes under his full name David Walter Hall, to avoid confusion with an actor of the same name – has rewritten it to include 20 singers, six musicians and two actors. It is due to be performed at the Hackney Empire on 16 July.

Dave, 26, says: “It’s my interpretation of the myth that surrounds Robert Johnson, who is sometimes referred to as the king of the Delta blues. People say that he sold his soul to the devil to become the great guitarist he was. He has influenced people like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.

At university, I saw some student plays and wondered if anyone had written about him. So I Googled his name and saw no one had. Then one night, a dark night, appropriately, a voice came into my head about how this character of the devil would sound – how he would use rhyme and tricks. I sat down and started writing, and six months later had a finished script.”

He is now working on a script called Mysterioso about jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, due to be performed at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith in October.

Dave is excited about Cross Roads Blues – which he is also directing and producing – being performed in Hackney.

“I’ve had plays performed at King’s Head in Islington, and for several years in a row at Edinburgh. But being at the Hackney Empire is the biggest thing to date. It seems that everything I do is bigger than the last so it’s moving in the right direction.”

So how does Hackney compare to his home city?

“It’s much better here. There is stuff happening here. It’s interesting and people are interesting.

“I like the Vortex jazz club and I recently discovered Cafe OTO – it’s a very alternative music place. Italian Vogue recently said how cool Dalston is and Cafe OTO was mentioned. I love the Rio cinema – you don’t get independent cinemas like it in the West End. The food’s great – I’m a real foodie. I love all the Turkish places .

The best kebabs in the world are in Hackney.”

Curriculum Vitae

  • 1983 Born in Belfast
  • 1994-2001 School at Methodist College, Belfast
  • 2002-5 Studied philosophy at Cambridge University
  • 2003 First student production of Cross Road Blues at ADC Theatre, Cambridge
  • 2004 Second play The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady performed at Corpus Christi Playroom, Cambridge
  • 2005 Cross Roads Blues is a hit at Edinburgh Festival
  • 2009 Cross Roads Blues comes to Hackney Empire

Now is the Hour – Fringe Review review

★★★★

Low Down

Slick, traditional theatre at its best, this is the story of the torpedoed liner the Laconia in WWII, and the survivors escape onto a lifeboat that then floats for weeks on the high Atlantic. The talented cast and wonderful set design bring to life beautifully the sense of time and place.

Review

This is a simple story of survival and most of the action takes place within the lifeboat. The ensemble cast keep our view fresh by moving the boat, which is seperated into several parts, around the stage at different angles; also representing the moving on of time and the drifting in different directions. The sea is effectively portrayed by way of shiny reflective plastic and the sky by painted driftwood like cabinets with old bottles on the shelves. The small stage is filled with a buoyant, energetic cast that know exactly what they are doing by way of excellent direction.

The opening, and a later scene, sees the cast move stylistically around the stage. This is in contrast to the naturalism that comes afterwards but this alteration of style is handled with grace. The acting is highly naturalistic and the makeup impressively realistic. Each actor plays their part with sensitive realism, each facial expression showing their desperation and fear. The script is imperfect however, with lapses into abstraction that don’t fit and are awkwardly delivered by the actors. What was also slightly baffling was the decision to not give several of the characters speaking roles (although these actors, to their credit, were still very present). This may work in a film, but on stage, with naturalistic acting, I wondered why they didn’t talk. As they die one by one they are maneuvered off the boat into the sea and move off stage with a grace that deftly symbolises their passing.

Sound, lighting and other innovative production values like the pouring of water from one jug to the other further add to this highly impressive production. As a piece of historical storytelling this production suceeds on every theatrical level. What diminishes it a little are parts of the script and a gradual dip in tension the more the bodies leave the boat, with the ending drawing to a predictable conclusion. However, this is more than worth seeing for the beautiful set and stagecraft, slick direction and admirable acting.

Reviewed by FLM

Now is the Hour – Rogues and Vagabonds review

CATHERINE CUSACK stars in this heart-rending epic in the tradition of The English Patient and Titanic. NOW IS THE HOUR is the astonishing true story of an affair that threatened the line of modern day Scottish aristocracy – a remarkable, illicit and ultimately tragic WWII romance set on-board the doomed ship, SS Laconia. Set entirely on-board a real lifeboat, visceral and up-close, this claustrophobic tour de force of taut survival drama, tells a story revealed only after the discovery of a remarkable series of letters unearthed 60 years after the death of the young pilot.

Now is the Hour – British Theatre Guide review

★★★★★

The Laconia incident during World War 2, where a U-boat torpedoed the liner, is well known, if mainly for the historical repercussions regarding the rescue of survivors it created in its wake. Crossroads Theatre have chosen to focus on one of the lesser known sides to the story, that of the devastatingly sad true story of the men and women who escaped on a lifeboat and became separated from the mass of survivors before the rescue attempts were made by the German navy.

In one of the most interesting ways to stage a play I’ve seen so far this festival, the stage is covered in a shimmering silver surface whilst the cast situate themselves in the segments of a real lifeboat, which is split and re-arranged continually throughout to show both the passage of time and to emphasise the action on-board. The cast are magnificent in the way they tell the harrowing perils of the survivors’ while they begin to starve and perish to the elements. Using simple tricks and stagecraft to show the effects of sunburn and dehydration, the real emotional impact is in the subtleties between the actors in the small movements and looks. More powerful still are the ghosts of the dead cast, returning to claim each further lost soul from the boat, and the gutting moments of delirium and flashback that broke the eerie stillness with poignant reflection that cut close to the heart and encompass so brilliantly the human loss that took place. A truly classic play that deserves to be seen more than once.

Graeme Strachan

An Officer and a Gentleman’s Wife

Originally published in the Scotsman. Original article here.

The true story of a naval officer’s doomed wartime love affair with a married Scots aristocrat is being kept alive at the Fringe, discovers Roger Cox

ON 1 SEPTEMBER 1942, a 22-year-old Royal Navy Air Arm officer called Peter Medhurst wrote a letter home to his mother in New Zealand. It ended with a prophetic sign-off: “Just to say that (she] and I are frightfully happy together and if we do get sunk we’ll be together so what the hell.”

The woman Medhurst was referring to was a prominent Scottish aristocrat – married with children. The pair had fallen in love the previous year, and she was now four months pregnant with his child. Both of them were destined to die at sea just days after he posted this final missive, following the sinking of the Cunard White Star liner the Laconia by a German U-boat.

The story of their affair would almost certainly have died with them had it not been for some diligent detective work by Medhurst’s nephew, theatre producer Peter Christopherson, who uncovered his uncle’s last letter (along with 129 others) following the death of his grandmother in 2006.

Gradually, by reading between the lines of this wartime correspondence and tracking down first-hand accounts from those who survived the Laconia sinking, Christopherson was able to piece together the final days of these two doomed lovers, and their story is now the subject of a powerful new play by David Walter Hall at Edinburgh’s Hill Street Theatre.

Out of respect for the dead woman’s two sons, both of whom are still alive, Christopherson has opted not to name her in the play. He has been in contact with them, however. “I managed to get in touch with the younger one,” he says. “He’s just over 70. He was very sceptical at first, but I told him that I had letters, photos, the whole scoop. No-one in the family knew about the love affair, the pregnancy. In their eyes she was a complete saint. He then told his older brother, who wanted to sue us and close us down and all sorts of things, but the younger brother said, ‘No, you can’t.’

“I met the younger brother – I came up to Scotland and had lunch with him. I said we’d change his mother’s name and that we’d change the references to her father’s title, but we wanted to tell the story. I gave him a copy of the script to read and he came back with some useful comments – things like, ‘She would never have said that.’ Then I backed off, so I have no idea if they’re coming to see the play.”

At one point during our interview, Christopherson is showing me one of his uncle’s letters, written in beautiful, neat handwriting on Cunard White Star headed notepaper, when he realises the name of the girl’s family is clearly visible. But he is right not to publicly identify them: the story is just as remarkable whether you know the woman’s identity or not. In the play – titled Now is the Hour, after the famous wartime song – she is referred to simply as “Catriona”.

Catriona and Peter Medhurst met in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1941. He was a pilot, and evidently a very good one, as he was charged with flying Churchill around during one of his visits to the region. She was the wife of a senior officer in the British Army and, at 27, some five years Medhurst’s senior.

It is clear from his candid letters to his mother that Medhurst had fallen helplessly in love. In one, when Catriona enters the room, he writes: “Heaven has just walked in.”

“He would do things like borrow a plane and fly her down to Nairobi or over to Palestine for the weekend,” says Christopherson. “In one of the letters he took the husband as well and they all played golf together. He said it’s very strange having this mnage trois with someone who doesn’t realise.”

But the good times were not to last. By June 1942, German tank divisions commanded by Rommel had advanced beyond Torbruck and were rolling swiftly towards Alexandria. Preparations were made to evacuate civilians. As an airman, Medhurst could have caught a flight out of danger, but he had sworn to take Catriona to safety, so the pair embarked on the Laconia, which had been requisitioned as a troop ship.

As the Mediterranean was under Axis control, the ship would have to sail down the Suez Canal, around the Cape of Good Hope and then all the way up the west coast of Africa before finally docking at Liverpool. U-boats were a very real danger, hence the rather morbid tone of Medhurst’s last letter, which he posted in Durban when the Laconia stopped to refuel. A few days later, disaster struck. At 10:20pm on 12 September the Laconia was torpedoed by a German U-boat approximately 600 miles off the west coast of Africa. On board were 80 civilians, 136 crew, 285 British Army personnel, 160 Polish soldiers and about 1,800 Italian prisoners of war.

Almost immediately the ship began listing heavily to starboard, rendering half the lifeboats useless, but with difficulty four boats were launched from the port side, carrying around 200 survivors. Amid the chaos, Medhurst managed to get Catriona safely into one of the lifeboats along with a nurse called Dorris Hawkins, whom they had met during the voyage, and it is at this point that Now Is The Hour picks up their story.

To say their odds of surviving were slim would be an understatement. The lifeboat had been looted of most of the essentials in Durban, including flares and a rudder, and with 66 people on board a vessel designed to carry 30, rations had to be spread exceedingly thinly, with each person receiving just one tablespoon of fresh water a day.

After 12 days of exposure to the searing tropical heat, Catriona died of what was then known as “privation” and after a brief service her body was thrown over the side. Two days later, Medhurst smashed the ship’s compass, drank all the alcohol out of it and stepped off the back of the boat, effectively committing suicide. Before he did so, however, he handed Hawkins a silver cigarette case to give back to his mother, and this same cigarette case now appears as a prop in the play.

After 27 days at sea, Hawkins and 15 others who had managed to keep themselves alive reached the coast of Liberia.

Medhurst’s cigarette case was returned to his mother in New Zealand and when she died it was discovered by her grandson. “It’s a really special thing for me to have found that case and to have it in the show,” he says, “to know the journey it was on and that that journey ends here.”

• Now Is The Hour is at Hill Street Theatre until 25 August, 4:05pm.

Now is the Hour – Independent review

You may associate it with Gracie Fields, but “Now Is the Hour” is adapted from a traditional Maori song. So it’s a masterstroke to have it sung here by a young New Zealander serving as a Royal Navy pilot. When the song is heard in David Walter Hall’s play, it is scarcely possible to hold back a tear.

The year is 1942 and the liner Laconia has been torpedoed in the Atlantic. For 28 days, a band of survivors struggles to stay alive in a lifeboat. They include Peter Medhurst and the married Scot “Catriona” (renamed to conceal her identity), who is carrying his child and to whom, in her final hours, he croons, “soon you’ll be sailing far across the sea”. In mimed, dreamlike flashbacks, we see the emergence of their affair, the ship’s destruction, and the hours of hope and despair.

The idea for the play came from producer Peter Christopherson, who, as Medhurst’s nephew, came into possession of his uncle’s letters. Of the three survivors, it is Doris Hawkins (sensitively played by Catherine Cusack) who frames the story in a letter to Medhurst’s mother.

The acting of the 11-strong company is convincing enough, on a versatile set – a fractured lifeboat on a shiny floor against a marine backcloth. The incident is soon to be dramatised by Alan Bleasdale for BBC television, but it’s unlikely to have half as much heart as this poignant production.

Lynne Walker

Ones to watch: stars on the rise

Excerpt from an article in the Belfast Telegraph. Original article here.

The arts in Ulster are flourishing; with festivals and venues springing up all over. It’s an exciting time for a new generation of film-makers, musicians and writers – although many of them still have to move away to establish their careers. 24/7 spoke to three promising, young self-starters who could be the big names of tomorrow

David Hall (24) is a playwright, originally from Belfast, now based in london

Former Methody pupil David Hall has caught the attention of the London theatre world with his dark, atmospheric play The Last Priest, based on 18th century French cleric and closet atheist, Jean Meslier.

The play has just finished a run at the well-known King’s Head in Islington, a small pub-cum-theatre that has nurtured talents like Kenneth Branagh, Steven Berkoff, Ben Kingsley and Joanna Lumley (who’s still a patron).

Hall is already in talks with an Ulster film production company with a view to expanding the drama into a screenplay.

Exciting times for Hall, who had barely graduated from Cambridge University when he got his first opening.

“I took a play to the Edinburgh Fringe the summer after I left university – purely for fun, not as a career move. But that play, Crossroad Blues, did extremely well, and a producer who saw it wanted to put on a large-scale production of it.

“Unfortunately, that same producer then went bankrupt, but by that stage I felt tied in to exploring a career in theatre.”

Hall studied philosophy at Cambridge, so when an opportunity came along for a commissioned play about Jean Meslier, the subject-matter drew him like a moth to a flame.

“I got very much into the story. The historical dimension really interested me, as I’ve never read a lot of history, but this was a great excuse to explore – I read biographies of Voltaire and other major figures to try and get a sense of society at that time.

“Obviously, as a philosophy graduate, all the ranting against religion and the absurdities of religious fundamentalism interested me hugely and had great resonance for today.

“There are obvious parallels between the behaviour of the Catholic Church in pre-revolutionary France, and aspects of political Islam today. But I didn’t want to overdo those parallels, either; I didn’t want the play, which already has a great story, to turn into an allegory.”

Hall is juggling a number of new projects, including trying to win the rights to adapt the novel The Master And Margarita into an opera. No less a figure than Andrew Lloyd Webber is rumoured to have considered the very same move, but was too busy with other projects.

The young Ulster writer is also putting the finishing touches to a “dark musical” called Voodoo Blues, which he was commissioned to write, and hopes to see at next year’s Edinburgh Festival.

Talented though he is, Hall is quick to point out he doesn’t compose the scores for his musical work. “You have to know your limitations, and when you need outside help.”

He credits the “fantastic” theatre department at his old grammar school, Methodist College, for getting him hooked on theatre in the first place.

“I was always involved in school plays. I was never a great actor, but I would take smaller parts.”

Of course, Cambridge University, with its Footlights society, and great investment in the arts generally, was another positive experience. It was during this time Hall abandoned acting for writing drama.

His first two plays, The Black Saint and Sinner Lady, reeled in five-star reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe, paving the way for later commissions.

Despite his successes and cautious optimism, Hall points out that disappointments go with the territory.

“If I counted all the projects I’ve been involved in over the last couple of years – probably around a dozen – only a couple have made it through. It is quite gutting when you have an idea and people seem interested, then six months down the line someone says, ‘No, sorry, we’re not interested any more’.”

Interview: Una Bradley
Read more: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/entertainment/theatre-arts/ones-to-watch-stars-on-the-rise-13473546.html#ixzz1yuZ1dE7g

The Last Priest – Guardian review

Good heavens – some decent atheist drama

Non-believers these days seem so zealous and shrill. Fortunately, two plays deal the subject in a sympathetic and balanced way.

The prospect of an evening of pro-atheist drama does not normally fill me with joy. Although a fervent non-believer myself, I find advocates of godlessness are more often than not a shrill bunch of didactic zealots. But last night, for the second time this year, my fears were gloriously unrealised.

There seems to be something about producing compelling theatre which forces people with otherwise very strong views to both humanise their opponents and show the flaws in their own position. The Last Priest, which had its press showing at London’s King’s Head yesterday, dealt as much, or more, with the ties of love and friendship than matters of doctrine. True, the atheist priest, Jean Meslier is portrayed as both intellectually right and morally upright, but the only character not willingly living a lie was the devout housekeeper Delphine, and even the obviously hypocritical priest Fr Claude Butler was portrayed with sympathy and compassion.

In On Religion, which ran at the Soho Theatre at the turn of the year, philosopher AC Grayling and director Mick Gordon were actually brave enough to make the ardent atheist the least sympathetic character in the play. Grayling says that he did this because he didn’t want to load the dice, and he trusted the audience to see that the right view does not always have the most likeable of advocates. I thought it also had a quite different effect: the complex emotional interactions between the characters seemed to be a demonstration of the fact that as long as dangerous extremes of belief are avoided, the love and understanding we show each other is more important to living a good human life than the beliefs we intellectual subscribe to.

Grayling admits that he originally thought the play would show that the atheism v religion battle was no contest, but he quickly realised that to make a good drama, you need more balance and shades of grey. The Last Priest’s writer David Walter Hall made a similar point when I congratulated him on creating such a humane work out of material that could so easily have become a secular sermon. “That’s the difference between the synopsis I was given and the play I eventually wrote,” he replied.

What a contrast these plays make with much of the recent atheist non-fiction, which continues to be produced at an unprecedented rate. Devoid of concrete portrayals of human life, they drift towards the abstract, where believers are left as poor, deluded fools and atheists appear no more than dried-out, heartless rationalists. These works fail to convince for precisely the same reasons that On Religion and The Last Priest do: if you are going to change the values that people live their lives by, you need to show a sympathetic understanding of how they actually live them now.

Julian Baggini