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Many Roads to Paradise

Finborough Theatre
10 June - 05 July 2008
by Whippet Productions in Association with Icarus Theatre Collective
Rip Her To Shreds

Many Roads to Paradise

By Stewart Permutt

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5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars Aline Waites, Remotegoat


"Comic invention, wit and pathos.."
by Aline Waites for remotegoat on 16/06/08

MANY ROADS TO PARADISE by Stewart Permutt
at the Finborough

Permutt's unique talent consists of the invention of troubled but very funny characters - the kind of roles that actors long for - and his gift for comedy dialogue and pathos has never been so well exploited as in this, the latest of his offerings.

This play concerns a company of six - three couples with each pair apparently unrelated to the others. Stella is an eighty year old blind woman in a Jewish old peoples' home, getting to know and love her carer, a muslin woman from Mogadishu. Sadia is kind, makes up her face for her and listens to the old ladies stories of her life as a single mother in the fifties, her disappointment with her grown up daughter and the fun she used to have working as a milliner and having tea parties with her friends.

Martin is a very respectable gay man, a travel agent who has taken to touring the internet looking for a partner. He meets up with Leo, a cockney sex enthusiast in jeans and leathers and they embark on a confused and confusing friendship.

Helen, overweight, unmade up and sloppily dressed, lives with her partner Avril, a retired radio producer who takes out her boredom and bitterness by drinking heavily and bullying her friend, nicknaming her "Scruffy" and making fun of her cooking..

Amanda Boxer has a most rewarding role as Avril, with her superbly timed acerbic dialogue that gets a laugh every time she speaks but shows that underneath there is a vulnerable and needy woman. Helen is superbly played by Gillian Hanna with no makeup and artfully lumpy costumes. She too has hidden talents and surprises. None of the people bear out the description of stereotype which might be levelled at them on their first appearance. Daniel Hill gives a carefully considered performance as the gay man, only betraying his sexual orientation by a certain softness of diction and tiny, ineffectual movements. Jason Wing, great casting as Leo, is a different person when he dons a tweed coat and answers to the name of George. Towering above them all is the wonderful Miriam Karlin who uses a whole range of emotions from ecstasy to anger to sadness to wistfulness as Stella, and she is always the central character, the spider in the centre of this complicated web. All the characters are involved with each other somehow, the only outsider being Elizabeth Uter whose tender performance as Sadia proclaims her a woman at peace with herself and with others.

The actors have been directed by Anthony Biggs who understands the piece very well and brings out every ounce of comedy while allowing the tragic nature of the various situations to express themselves. There is one set which has to suffice for all locations. Designed by Beck Rainford, it works well - a multipurpose set which never seems odd due to Tony Simpson's lighting effects which throw each scene and setting into relief,

Permutt has reason to be proud of this treatment of his work and the artists who have served him so well.

 

Four Stars Theo Bosanquet, What's On Stage


Many Roads to Paradise is a play about unconventional relationships - an 80-year old woman with her Muslim carer, her 50-something daughter with another woman, a failed travel agent with a man he met on the web - yet all are believable, all are engaging, and all speak fundamental truths.

Stewart Permutt, whose previous play at the Finborough, Unsuspecting Susan, tours Europe later this year, underscores every scene with a sharp wit, and ensures that each character is given due focus, cleverly connecting them together in the manner of a classic British farce. But there is nothing farcical about the story - despite its seemingly off-beat subjects, there is something here that everyone can relate to.

The cast work together beautifully, and special mention must go to Miriam Karlin as the octogenarian Mother from hell. I haven’t been fortunate enough to see many of her performances in her 63-year career, but I feel lucky to have seen this one. In the intimate surroundings of the Finborough, you could have heard a pin drop during most of the time she was on stage. As for the others, Daniel Hill has the perfect blend of humour and vulnerability as gay travel-agent Martin, and Gillian Hanna is utterly lovable as his long-term assistant Helen.

There are a few sticking points - the theme takes time to reveal itself (not helped by a rather misleading title), and a few scenes could undoubtedly do with a trim. Also, Beck Rainford’s set is functional but lacking in imagination, lending the play a somewhat dull aesthetic (not helped by occasional dark spots in the lighting plan). But these minor quibbles aside, if you’re looking for some genuine laughs, coupled with real poignancy and heart, this is the play for you.

 

Four Stars Lucy Powell, Time Out


Whichever way you spin it, there’s nothing remotely sexy about a Jewish old people’s home in Hendon and a pair of 60-year-old women, even if they are lesbians, in a retirement crisis. But writer Stewart Permutt pulls any number of stinging and salient themes from his seemingly drab setting. A devout Muslim nurse, caring for an intransigent, 80-year-old Jewish milliner, Stella, nursing nothing but contempt for her lesbian daughter, Helen, raises beautifully nuanced questions about the conditionality of love, phobias and religious racism. Much of the evening’s comedy comes courtesy of George, the home’s gay deputy head who has a penchant for online dating and from Helen’s domestic life, very far removed from the cosy sapphic love-nest a less honest writer might have penned. Avril is a vituperative viper of a long term lover, who, in the capable hands of Amanda Boxer, delivers her caustic epigrams with gloriously flagrant ease.

Miriam Karlin is an uncomfortably credible, ancient Stella, as fragile as she is vile, and Daniel Hill is perfectly harried as the middle-aged Martin, naively looking for love in his inbox and who, as Helen’s boss, pulls the disparate storylines neatly together.

Elsewhere the casting is much less solid, and Anthony Biggs’s cluttered staging sags disappointingly in energy and focus, particularly in the final scenes, which feel in urgent need of trimming and tightening. But this is a flawed first outing of a rare, real and heart-warming find.

 

Four Stars Gene David Kirk, UK Theatre Web


A conventional mix of unconventional relationships past their sell-by date; misunderstandings of need, want, love, lust, desire and reality combine to create a super play that is both hilariously funny and so very tragically sad. Miriam Karlin heads a super cast in this deeply felt journey about people trying to find their own paradise. Miriam Karlin’s stoic Stella commands our attention as she manipulates each moment to get maximum laughter, or heartbreaking pathos: in the twitch of an eye or the subtlest of tonal changes. Amanda Boxer and Gillian Hanna are superb as the world-weary lesbian couple who have outlived their own relationship, but separation means loneliness. Danny Hill creates a guilt-ridden, downtrodden Gaydar voyeur who wants the perfect match but it just does not exist - for him! Brilliant comic timing and complete command of every moment, Danny Hill is the excellent choice to wriggle out of every awkward moment the play and his ‘toy boy’ provocateur throws at him. This comes in the guise of Jason Wing’s simmering and slightly anarchic Theo. Elizabeth Uter is the young star of the show who lovingly and believably calms, cajoles and protects the inimitable Stella. Director, Anthony Biggs, navigates the play and the tiny stage with artistry and skill; extracting every comic possibility, leaving the sadness and desolation of lonely lives to sit in the pit of the stomach once the laughter has long faded.

Beck Rainford’s intimate and multi-locational design is as beautiful as it is functional; allowing the action to flow freely while firmly locating it in its own tight environment.

For many reason this play should be seen by everyone. Drama students and theatre-lovers alike will applaud fine acting by the strongest of casts, coupled with witty and engaging dialogue, that sits within a world so remarkably realised by Anthony Biggs and his team….you would pay a lot of money in the West End for a class act like this, so why not pop along to the Finborough and find out what great nights are made of.

The are, indeed, many roads to paradise, and Stuart Permutt’s play is one of them.

 

Four Stars Sarah Perry, OMH Music


Stewart Permutt's new play Many Roads to Paradise makes effective use of a venerable conceit; three apparently unconnected narrative threads are gradually pulled together to form a single strand.

Frail and blind in her wheelchair, Stella relies on her nurse Sadia for the affection and comfort she won't seek in her daughter. Meanwhile, in a bar somewhere in North London, Martin nervily clasps an attaché case and awaits his date - known to him only as 'Top for Hungry Bottoms.' Over in a well-appointed town-house Avril, valiantly pickling her liver in Waitrose pinot noir, torments her lover Helen with exquisitely delivered insults.

This play is considerably greater than the sum of its parts. While there's little to surprise (when it transpires that the stout daughter who has so thoroughly disappointed Stella is none other than Helen, who happens also to work for Martin, there's a comfortable sense that we know where this is going), the dialogue acutely reflects the rhythms and language of real speech, and is often breathtakingly funny. The acting is astonishingly well-observed, with each cast member so thoroughly inhabiting their role that in moments of silence the audience is left gasping with laughter or manfully suppressing tears merely at a gesture or look.

As Martin, Daniel Hill combines a beautifully Eeyorish demeanour with a radiant good nature and impeccable manners: he is, from the start, the kind of man it would be impossible to dislike. 'Tops For Hungry Bottoms' turns out to be Leo (Jason Wing), who - with his slicked-back hair and biker jacket over a white vest - made me think of nothing so much as Graham Greene's Pinkie, if only his life in Brighton had taken an altogether merrier and more benevolent turn. 'What I really like,' he says, giving Martin a sexually charged but rather kindly once-over, 'Is an older hairy man with a beer gut who doesn't take himself too seriously.'

Amanda Boxer as Avril has the kind of comic timing I could cheerfully have watched for hours: perpetually three sheets to the wind, dismayed by forced retirement from the BBC, she's gifted by Permutt with lines of the most fabulous malice, all delivered in a voice that could engrave crystal at thirty paces. Gillian Hanna's Helen is a weak uncertain thing, and certainly no charmer, but we are stoutly on her side from the off, so that when she finally faces up to her mother and lover it's tempting to rush onstage and give her a cuddle.

But it's Miriam Karlin as Stella who's most touching: this actress in her ninth decade grasps the arms of her wheelchair with shivering hands, and her bones are visible through tissue-paper skin. This is no Werther's Originals view of old age: the playwright has understood that character - with every bit of kindness, spite, disappointment, hope - remains undiminished even when the mind fails. Only her nurse Sadia, played with immense warmth and spirit by Elizabeth Uter, responds to her as a woman still living as best she can.

As a teenager I worked as a care assistant in a nursing home, and it's perhaps because of this that I laughed less often than others at Stella's poignantly funny lines. I remember that there was terrible sadness in every thin square of carpet and every half-drunk cup of milky tea - and the saddest thing of all was to see that betrayals and losses from decades before resurfaced daily, with hardly any dulling from the passage of time. What this deeply compassionate play exposes, with clear, kind sight, is how unbearably long-lasting life's wounds can be. It seemed to me a plea to avoid causing hurt at all costs, and to remedy it as soon as one can, since 'too late' comes without any warning. This play and its excellent cast deserve a transfer to a larger venue.

 

Julienne Banister, Rogues & Vagabonds

Look, I’m just going to get this over with. No frills, no bells and whistles, no excuses. This play is, well, there’s no other way to say it – EXCELLENT!

See, reviews don’t have to be wordy or turgid or flowery. Now you can go back to whatever you were doing. Because I haven’t wasted your time telling you how six actors individually and collectively bring a great piece of writing to life.

How Elizabeth Uter as careworker Sadia takes kindness, patience and integrity to almost saintly heights. As a Muslim nurse in a Jewish care home, she carries out her duties to both her patient and her religion with total dedication and zero intolerance. An ambassador to her faith, she provides an example to those who would have us believe the worst of Muslims.

How nursing home inmate Stella, brought to us by none other than the wonderful Miriam Karlin, reminds us that even cantankerous elderly Jewish mothers with a fair share of senility and an acid tongue can still somehow be loveable.

I also need not bore you with how a somewhat reticent, straight-looking gay man, wonderfully played by Daniel Hill, manages to become yet another conquest for the menacing, mercenary, no-nonsense bit of rough, Leo, ably personified by Jason Wing.

How could I have the audacity to try your patience with an insight into the lives of a lesbian couple in their autumn years. Helen (Gillian Hanna) whose almost cringingly downtrodden manner makes her an embarrassing victim of her partner Avril, stunningly portrayed by Amanda Boxer, whose enormous ego and limitless talent for bitterness and sarcasm are challenged only by her capacity for tactlessness.

The at-first-separate circumstances play out on a tiny set, cleverly devised by Beck Rainford, so that it works as a Swiss Army knife, providing all the bits and pieces for sometimes several scenarios onstage at once. The lighting and sound are discreet as befits a venue as small as The Finborough, but expertly appropriate.

Gradually the connections between the characters become apparent and fit seamlessly together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Every scene confronts us with a mixture of emotions, hidden or raw, gives laudable messages about prejudice and bigotry and triggers laughter and tears in equal measure. The ridiculousness of human weakness is played out with a dinner party scene where the two gay couples reach Pinteresque proportions of discomfort. The furious row between Helen and Avril that follows is a brilliant example of a worm-turning exercise. You can reach out and touch the emotional atmosphere.

Stewart Permutt’s writing is skillfully accurate with both feminine and masculine dialogue, gay persons’ perspectives and the behaviour of an elderly Jewish matriarch. I would stick my neck out and say that this play could do more to destroy prejudice than many do-gooders shoving leaflets into our hands or staging rock concerts for charity.

 

Howard Loxton, The British Theatre Guide


In a Jewish old people's home in Hendon, north London, is Stella, a blind octogenarian with a failing memory, being wheeled into the garden by her carer, a Somalian refugee in a khimar. In a smart house in Golders Green, Helen, her lesbian daughter is being bossed around by her tippling ex-BBC partner. Helen works for a failing travel agent, her gay friend Martin, and he is plucking up courage to speak to the guy in a leather jacket whom he thinks is the chap he has made a date with on the internet. That prospect is Leo, known as George where he works which, to complete the circle, is the very same care home where Stella is living. Despite that convenient completion this is no La Ronde sequence of sexual encounters but an all too accurate study of the dysfunctional pattern of human relationships.

Sometimes savagely funny in its picture of the imbalance of the expectations and needs on the two sides of a partnership, this isn't just about sexual pairings. There is a moment when things seem about to take on the clash between western culture and Islam. It doesn't pursue that ideological argument but concentrates on the basic problem of how little we know or understand of each other.

It is a delight to see Miriam Karlin back in action as the old lady in her wheelchair, still harping on the husband who gave her only a charm bracelet and a baby before he ran off sixty years ago. Of course, there is part of her that's very endearing but you can see just how much damage she has done to her daughter. You can't help feeling for Gillian Hanna's Helen, or 'Scruffy' as partner Avril persistently calls her. Stewart Permutt allows us to see more sides to her character by showing her in more varied situations. Posh Avril, hiding her insecurities behind self-importance and alcohol, is more one-dimensional but gets some of the best lines and Amanda Boxer makes the most of them -- like saying a woman has 'a face squashed in like a Persian pussy on heat'; impossibly bossy, she is clear in her principles: 'Relationships are like going on a very long train journey. You have to keep on going till the end; you can't just jump out of the carriage when things get a bit bumpy...'

Sadia, the Somali carer, gives the opportunity to show another kind of dependent relationship - her dependence as well as her charges; she seems very loving but Elizabeth Uter in the occasional moment makes us wonder whether her devotion might really be role play. Martin is perhaps a bit of a cliché: a gay man who has barely managed to find, let alone keep a lover, but David Hill prevents him from being boring and Jason Wing's stud, a little over the hill in his thirties, with a taste for older men who are hairy, gives a nice balance between sexual confidence and what could be both vulnerability or canny exploitiveness.

Director Anthony Biggs keeps the action moving rapidly between half a dozen locations on a fixed set without moving the furniture, which on this tiny stage sometimes leads to some rather odd placing. Designer Beck Rainford's choice of particular items, dominated by a pair of care-home armchairs does little to match other locations with a 50s kitchen cabinet doubling for both Martin's batchelor apartment and Avril's elegant household, however this is a production that concentrates on the actors not the setting.

 

Natasha Tripney, The Stage


Stewart Permutt’s bittersweet play features three interconnected relationships. Martin, a middle aged Jewish travel agent meets a man 20 years his junior on a gay dating website. His colleague Helen has been living with the strident, domineering Avril for 30 years, but their relationship is under strain after Avril’s redundancy. Helen’s mum, Stella, meanwhile, who lives in an old people’s home, with her health failing and her sight gone, has developed a friendship with her new nurse, a Muslim woman from Somalia, and their growing closeness is starting to make Helen jealous.

If there is a theme to Permutt’s play, it’s about the human spectrum and how all people have their prejudices and their dreams. Helen is apprehensive about a Muslim woman looking after her mother, while Sadia, the nurse, cannot fathom why Helen would choose to spend her life with a woman. Anthony Biggs’ production is admirably subtle in its handling of these themes, subtler certainly than the play itself, producing moments of superb social awkwardness, a dinner party thrown by Helen chief among them.

There are some strong performances amongst cast, particularly from Gillian Hanna as the downtrodden, frumpy Helen and Miriam Karlin as the stubborn, frustrated Stella who has no intention of going gentle into that good night.

 

Natasha Tripney, Interval Drinks Blogspot


First up, Many Roads To Paradise at the Finborough, Stewart Permutt’s warm-hearted and kind play about the lives of six disparate characters. Is ‘kind’ a relevant adjective for describing a play? Yes, in this case I think it is. This is a play full of warmth and wit and affection for its characters despite their flaws, their failings. As I said, it concerns six people, whose lives we come to realise are all interconnected. There is Martin, a middle aged Jewish travel agent who arranges to meets a man 20 years his junior on a gay dating website. Then there is his colleague Helen, who is in a long term relationship, thirty years and counting, with Avril, a strident and formidable type who wears driving gloves and has been hitting the Chardonnay with a vengeance after losing her job as a radio producer. And there is Helen’s mum, Stella, old and frail, once a milliner, a maker of hats, but now blind. She is in an old people’s home where she has developed a friendship with her new nurse, a Muslim woman from Somalia. Their growing closeness is starting to make Helen jealous. This is an admirably unsentimental view of old age. The elderly Stella is fragile and fading but ancient resentment still resurfaces within her, fresh. She asks after long dead friends and gobbles bananas as if they may be stolen from her at any minute.

I suspect the production elevates the play into something more than it is. With a lesser cast, its various coincidences and predictabilities may have grated more (a friend who also saw the play commented ‘If I ever see an African nurse portrayed as a bitch, I think I shall cheer.’ Here, of course, the nurse is as decent and caring and patient as it gets). The cast are superb, particularly Gillian Hanna as the dumpy Helen, who has become accustomed to being told she is ugly, lumpy and useless, and Daniel Hill as the nervy, needy Martin. And then there is Miriam Karlin’s Stella, frail herself, with stick limbs and near translucent skin, but still with much fight in her.

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