The Faction season at the New Diorama is now a staple for any Off-West End theatregoer, always getting the year going with a bang. It’s no different in 2015, with three energetic adaptations that cement the company’s reputation as the fringe’s leading ensemble repertory group – indeed, the fringe’s only repertory company. There’s only one caveat: two of the three are far too long, a trait this effusive company needs to watch out for.
But even if there is too much of a good thing, the quality of each production is high. We have a tense, existential The Talented Mr Ripley, a visceral total theatre experience with Joan of Arc and a hip Romeo and Juliet.
The last is the weakest and feels the longest. The Faction’s trademark physical theatre style feels superfluous at most points and there is far too much stage business added on. But the central relationship between Clare Latham’s impossibly cool Juliet and Christopher York’s terribly sweet Romeo is lovely. You can feel the terrible, impetuous flushes of first love and you want it to work for them. Latham is particularly strong as Juliet, delivering Shakespeare’s poetry with admirable fluency. Juliet has some of the best lines in Shakespeare and Latham does justice to them beautifully.
Another strong performance is at the heart of The Talented Mr Ripley. In fact, that’s an understatement: Christopher Hughes as Tom Ripley is astonishing. Mercurial, nerdy, desperate and yet strangely likeable, you can’t take your eyes off him for the full three hours. With so much attention being spent on him there’s very little for the rest of the cast, who put in solid ensemble performances, with a particularly nice turn from Natasha Rickman as Marge. Mark Leipacher’s direction is full of lovely existential twists, elongated shadows and cracks in the narrative – characters screaming “Cut!” adds to the sense that we are in Ripley’s mind the whole time. Chris Withers’ sophisticated lighting only adds to this pervasive sense of disquiet.
The snappiest of the three is also the last. Joan of Arc comes in at a neat 1hr 40mins and benefits from its trim running time in a sparky, nimble production. It also boasts a brilliant central performance from Kate Sawyer as Joan. At times soft and at others bristling with menace, she is a very modern heroine who refuses suitor after suitor. Joan’s steely determination flashes out through Sawyer’s eyes, threatening to eviscerate all who challenge her until she loses herself completely to the fight. Leipacher and Rachel Valentine Smith’s modern-dress version is sleek and snappy, stripping Schiller’s play of accusations of sentimentality, in a lean and mean production.
The Faction is beginning to develop a real signature in imaginative, contemporary and visceral versions of the classics. Amid the current debate between the rise of new writing and lack of classical work on London stages, this enterprising and determined company is doing us all a service bringing writers such as Schiller to new audiences.
January 6-February 28, PN various