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Stairway to Heaven

L-R James Ronan, James French

Photo by Michael Brydon


by Steve Hennessy


Directed by Chris Loveless


Movement by Omar F. Okai


Music by Renell Shaw


Design, Set and Costume by Ann Stiddard


Lighting by Chris Lince


Blue Elephant Theatre


15 June to 10 July 2010








A review by James Buxton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

The Blue Elephant Theatre is tucked away in a housing estate in Camberwell and is well worth a visit for the diverse array of shows on offer.

Stairway to Heaven is set on the upper levels of the construction site of Cheops' Pyramid in Ancient Egypt, 2,700 BC. It follows the arrival of Makhthon (James Ronan), a young labourer who is the newest addition to a work gang, run by Merab (James French). Makhthon suffers under the sweltering conditions where he is tormented by the workmen and turns to drink in order to cope. Geb, (Matthew Ward) another worker takes a fancy to him and shelters him under his wing, however their relationship is short lived as Geb is suspiciously murdered. As a result, Makhthon begins to lose the plot when he is visited in dreams by the ghost of Geb - eventually he becomes so fervently devoted to the construction of the pyramid that his actions spiral out of control.

Stiddard's set is divided into two areas, with a sleeping section downstage right comprised of a reed backdrop and Hessian drape, while upstage left a large triangle represents part of the pyramid, with  ropes slung down, which the actors use to enact the heaving of stones up the pyramid. The set is bathed in bright white lights that create the effect of the sun's glare while the setting of ancient Egypt is evoked through the hazy sound of flutes and clarinets.

One of the major problems in the play is that Hennessy's dialogue closely resembles that of British builders on a construction site -   this seems to undermine the element of ancient Egyptian mysticism that the play attempts to embody. It is hard for the audience to suspend their disbelief as the language places you on the scaffolding of a modern day building site, where be-vested builders on eternal tea breaks jeer and swear at each other, in an atmosphere of general rowdiness. Although Hennessy attempts to engage our imagination through frequent references to the Pharaoh and Amun Ra, these potentially awe inspiring characters seem incongruous with the language he employs.

James Rowan gives a convincing performance as Makhthon, as he evolves from a credulous, youth bullied for his innocence and Nubian background to a deranged zealot. Rowan's voice is clear and audible as he passionately delivers his lines, but it his eyes that convincingly display the transition from fearful boy to fanatic that effectively grab the audience's attention.

Matthew Ward as Geb provides steady support to Rowan, initially appearing as an equally derisory hard man, swigging endless beers and bullying Makhthon. In time this attitude gives way to his softer side, when it becomes apparent that he is physically attracted to him, in one scene attempting to cuddle him while asleep. Though, at points it was hard to hear what Ward was saying.

James French as Merab portrays the head of the work gang with an adequate level of menace however it never felt like he was ever actually going to use the wooden stick he threateningly wields.  This perhaps was Loveless's intent, allowing French to appear tough, as the little man granted a fraction of power that he abuses, but when it comes down to it, is actually afraid of  Makhthon's religious fervour.

Nicholas Cass-Beggs portrays Hiksos with a wily edge, as he appears inferior to Merab's repeated assertion of dominance but has only his own gain in mind.

The costumes were a simple mix of collarless shirts and shorts, with Makhthon smeared with excrement at the beginning, enhancing his tormented look.

It is hard to deduce what Stairway to Heaven is attempting to achieve, for it seems to spread itself too thinly. The religious fervour and alcoholism of Makhthon are used as devices to further his gradual decline into insanity but are not ever really developed in the larger social context. Within the all male cast of slaves the fraternal element was largely overshadowed by the homosexual advances on Makhthon, who became the object of lust for Geb and Merab, who uses sex as a vehicle to assert his dominance.

The themes of the afterlife and futility of their labour were also mentioned but you never got beyond the surface into a proper exploration of one aspect. Perhaps it is not always necessary to follow a Brechtian ideal of theatre as serving a social function and to instead pursue a vein free from any social commentary, but it is necessary to decide whether you follow one or the other.


Blue Elephant Theatre
59a Bethwin Rd

Time: 8:00 pm

Tuesday - Saturday

Ticket price £10.00
£8.00 (concessions) £7.00 (Southwark residents)












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