Tuesday, 21 November 2017
If you go to Young Marx expecting the laugh bombardment you got at One Man Two Guvnors, you could be disappointed. But go with an open mind and the realisation is that Richard Bean and Clive Coleman have crafted a play with very witty and clever dialogue that provides, if not belly laughs, then certainly entertainment.
This being the first production at a brand-new London theatre situated south of the river, it would be remiss of me not to air my thoughts and I have to say that I have no reservations whatsoever. The Bridge Theatre (the love child of Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr) is a triumph. Its situation, river side and overlooking Tower Bridge is perfect and, as is to be expected from two theatrical stalwarts, its flexible configuration is not only excellent, but aesthetically pleasing. Plus, and it’s a big plus, there are many more female loos than we women are used to in a theatre - hurrah! Oh, and I must not forget to mention the leather trimmed seats, which are comfy and provide masses of leg room. We theatre goers visiting this big, bright space are definitely travelling first class rather than economy. Let’s hope and pray that the unsubsidised The London Theatre Company (the theatre’s resident company) manage to realise all their plans to open more theatres and transfer productions far and wide.
Nick Hytner directs Young Marx and has assembled a great cast led by Rory Kinnear, Oliver Chris and Nancy Carroll. The play is a farce set in Soho in 1850 highlighting the shenanigans of the young, newly arrived refugee, Karl Marx (Kinnear) who is a bit of a lad, to put it mildly. Work shy and prone to boozing far too much, Marx leads his long- suffering wife, Jenny (Carroll), a not so merry dance. There is no doubt that he loves her and adores his sickly young son, Guido and musical daughter, Jenny Caroline but this doesn’t stop him straying into the arms of the family’s maid, Helene (Laura Elphinstone). Marx’s side-kick and “brother-in-arms” is the wealthy and, it has to be said, lascivious Friedrich Engels (Oliver Chris) who is often called upon to bail out his cash stricken, co-author of the Communist Manifesto.
However, the main visitors to the Marx’s family hovel are the peelers or bailiffs, who at one point strip the sitting room/kitchen almost bare. Not that Marx is always privy to their visits, hiding as he often does in the cupboard for fear that he might be marched off to the local nick. Mark Thompson’s revolving set evokes the grittiness of this Dean Street dwelling, both inside and out and I love the way the set allows the actors to chase each other over the rooftops.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Rory Kinnear give an undiminished performance and the same is true here. His bearded, grubby Marx, who suffers from boils on his bottom, is forever in the zone, whether he be casually lambasting Jenny with verbal cruelty, getting into a punch up in the British Library, chatting up Helene or boisterously playing with his children. He is also able to depict Marx’s many contradictions with ease. He may be a political visionary but is also a blatant scrounger who is constantly daydreaming and trying to hide his self-doubt. Oliver Chris is equally affecting and, along with Kinnear, brings to life the two men’s friendship, whether it be as one half of a Victorian Flanders & Swan double act, or the permanent human cash point machine. He is a more sympathetic character than Marx but with no hint of saccharine. Everyone else in the case provides top notch support, especially Nancy Carroll and Laura Elphinstone.
The play isn’t overly concerned with portraying Marx’s obviously brilliant mind, concentrating instead on trying to demystify him. We are given a hint that he was a brilliant analyst in a powerful scene that allows Kinnear to momentarily take a breather from all his toing and froing, but this is not the main thrust of the play. We just have to believe what Engels says, “You’re an alpha, a bona fide genius, you prick!” All I can say is that what Young Marx does do is humanise the man in a very humorous way.
Friday, 3 November 2017
It‘s such a treat to be privy to a new play that is more than worth the ticket price. Beginning, now playing at The Dorfman, is one such production. Written by David Eldridge, Beginning is a two-hander charting the possible start of a new relationship. Whilst the majority of friendships/’sexships’ nowadays begin on-line, what happens when two mid-lifers are faced with getting to know one another face to face?
Set in Managing Director Laura’s new Crouch End flat, where she has been holding a party to celebrate her new acquisition, everyone has gone home apart from East Ender Danny. The couple haven’t met before and who knows if they will ever meet again.
Our first glimpse of Danny is his back view and we’re immediately aware of his discomfort, which is enhanced as soon as he turns round. This action is a taster of Polly Findlay’s exquisite direction. She, with the help of Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton ensure that this funny, touching and droll insight into the loneliness often felt by today’s singletons caught up in dating apps and phony postings on social media, delights from start to finish.
Justine Mitchell’s Laura initially seems to be the one who is more in control and it’s credit to her brilliant portrayal that, despite the outward appearances, we soon become aware that she has as many hang-ups as Sam Troughton’s Danny. Being successful at work, with enough income to own her own property doesn’t guarantee that her weekends aren’t spent alone. Danny, too, isn’t happy. Divorced and separated from his seven-year-old daughter, who he hasn’t seen since she was three, he has been forced to move back home to his mum and nan. He has been desperately hurt and is guarded about committing to any type of relationship, especially the one on Laura’s agenda. His initial laddish behaviour hides a sincere and gentle man, anxious not to make the same mistake twice.
The two of them spend the one hour and forty minutes running time getting to know one another. There are glaring gaffes, truthful admissions and the hint of a mutual attraction, and Findlay has no fear in allowing prolonged awkward silences whilst the couple take on board what’s been said. Initially any attempt by Laura to get physically closer to Danny is met with evasive and delaying tactics. One particularly amusing attempt at keeping the predatory Laura at bay is for him to suggest a preliminary flat clean up. She watches in disbelief as he shakes out a bin bag and proceeds to fill it with the party detritus, whilst periodically placing yet another empty beer bottle neatly on a shelf. Later on, when his nervousness is beginning to ebb, the two start to dance, until Danny, gradually digesting what Laura is suggesting, comes to a near stand-still. Nothing is said and doesn’t need to be; the unintended metaphoric slap in the face for Laura and her plan is painfully obvious.
There isn’t a dud note in the whole production. Designer Fly Davis realistically portrays the after party scene of empty bottles, Pringle packets and drooping streamers. In fact realism and truth is the name of the game, from David Eldrige’s pitch perfect dialogue, Polly Findlay’s expert choreography and Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton’s immersion into Laura and Danny.
From Beginning to end, this play is an absolute joy.
Tuesday, 24 October 2017
One of my early thoughts watching Wings by Arthur Kopit now playing at The Young Vic, was how on earth has Juliet Stevenson managed not to throw up? For she spends most of the seventy minutes running time strapped into a harness, swooping, diving and somersaulting in a manner that would give the Red Devils a run for their money. Stevenson’s last encounter with the Director, Natalie Abrahami, had the actress buried up to her neck in earth in Beckett’s Happy Days. Just a passing thought, but perhaps she should think twice about the content of the next production on which the pair collaborate?
Juliet Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, who at seventy years old has developed a neurological disorder called Aphasia. In her earlier years Emily was an aviator and wing walker and the rising and falling action caused by the harness not only mimics the way her mind is now forced to work but is also a harking back to her happy times in the air.
The designer, Michael Levine, has devised a long, raised platform that is able to move across the stage, onto which the airborne Stevenson gently drops from time to time. It is also where we view her, seated reading on a chair as the play opens and where the various members of the company playing doctors, nurses and therapists periodically appear.
Dialogue is sparse and when uttered by Stevenson often makes no sense; the poor woman knows what she wants to say but her condition renders her incapable of forming her thoughts into coherent words. Arthur Kopit’s father was also imprisoned within his own head by a stroke and whilst he was undergoing therapy, Kopit came across a former aviatrix whose brain had crashed. Thus Wings, written in 1978 is largely based on these experiences.
Unlike many forms of neurological complaints, Aphasia can improve and, thanks to the care and dedication of the professionals assigned to help her, Emily’s speech gradually returns. Juliet Stevenson must be thrilled when she can, at last, perform in an upright position.
Anyone who has had the misfortune to watch someone they know and love in the throes of a neurological condition may find, if not solace, at least some understanding as to what the illness can mean to the patient. Wings, whilst not exactly a bundle of laughs is a fascinating insight into this too prevalent condition. Juliet Stevenson is her usual excellent self and it is seventy minutes of unusual and thought-provoking theatre.
Tuesday, 19 September 2017
Musicals aren’t really my thing, but anything starring Imelda Staunton gets my vote, so I did book to see Follies at The Olivier. And I’m so glad I did because this production, directed by Dominic Cook, is captivating.
Follies, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Goldman is set in 1971 and is a tribute to the glamorous Broadway shows of yore when the beautiful chorus girls danced, sang and strutted their stuff in outrageous plumed costumes. Luckily, however, this production doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. Vicky Mortimer’s design mingles the theatre’s latter-day opulence with its present deterioration. It is to be demolished and the dismantling process has already begun, with piles of theatrical paraphernalia littering one side of the stage. The former Weismann Follies (based on the real-life Ziegfeld Follies) who are gathered together for one last party before the bulldozers hit, also hit home that the glitz and glamour is only skin deep. They have aged and have regrets and problems just like everyone else. And the fact that each main character has their younger self stalking them in the shadows highlights this even more.
The show mainly follows two couples. Phyllis and Ben are rich, successful, but childless New Yorkers who constantly bicker. Neither one of them are happy. Unhappiness is also the default setting for their long-time friends, Buddy and Sally, who now live the quiet life in Phoenix. Imelda Staunton (stunning as always) is Sally, excitedly nervous, not just at being back in the theatre, but also at being in the same space as the man she has yearned for ever since she was part of the chorus line, namely Ben. It seems she’s been waiting for this moment. The moment when she can rekindle the love for the man who is everything her husband is not.
It needs brilliant performers to do justice to these four complex characters and this production has succeeded in getting just that. Top of the tree is the incomparable Imelda Staunton with her multi-layered depiction of the delusional Sally. Her fixed smiles and nervous energy almost imperceptibly morph into downright misery and her rendition of Losing My Mind is a master class in showing just what the title means. Here is an actress who not only has the capability to emote in song or speech but can singlehandedly fill the largest space despite her tiny frame.
Another cast member who excellently portrays his hidden desolation is Philip Quast as Ben. He is blessed with a beautiful singing voice, but in his final song, Live, Laugh, Love, he goes to pieces so convincingly that one is unsure as to whether it is he, the actor who is really disintegrating.
Jamie Dee’s Phyllis is also excellent. Elegant and poised to within an inch of her life, her timing is spot on, making her rendition of Could I Leave You, caustically hilarious. Her high kicks aren’t half bad either.
It’s a real treat to see a troop of actresses of a certain age still belting out some of Sondheim’s biggest hits and dancing with the verve of women half their age. I defy anyone to perform Broadway Baby or I’m Still Here better than Di Botcher or Tracie Bennett respectively and following the National’s recent couple of misses, Dominic Cook has hit gold with his 135 minutes worth of pure joy.
Wednesday, 23 August 2017
Having got over “the elephant in the room”, namely Stockard Channing’s severe facial work, I was able to really enjoy Jamie Lloyd’s effective and caustically hilarious production of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play, Apologia. However, the American actress’s inability to show any flicker of visual emotion doesn’t in any way help to imbue her brittle Kristin with anything resembling warmth, maternal or otherwise. Obviously an extremely accomplished actress, I’m afraid she didn’t manage to persuade me that her character has any redeeming qualities.
A far left, sixties radical and art historian, Kristin is the mother (in title only it seems) of two sons, Peter and Simon. An avid Humanist, she still eschews the beliefs she held dear all those years ago, namely total hatred of Capitalism and Christianity. On the other hand, she is obviously in favour of hypocrisy, seeing as how she lives a far from frugal lifestyle and chooses to ignore that the religion she abhors gave birth to the human rights she claims to love. And, as for being a Humanist, are you kidding me? Anyone less entrenched in humanity would be almost impossible to find …. although she is deeply in love with herself. Never able to see anyone’s else’s point of view, Kristin is very much a “let’s talk about me” kind of person.
The play is set in Kristin’s homely (now that’s an anomaly) country kitchen, beautifully realised by Designer Soutra Gilmour and Jon Clark’s lighting. It’s her birthday and the first visitors to arrive to celebrate are embittered son Peter (Joseph Millson) and new American girlfriend, Trudi (Laura Carmichael). The poor girl is introduced to her future mother-in-law’s acid tongue almost immediately having chosen a Liberian tribal mask as a birthday present. “It’s main purpose was clearly not decorative”, retorts the recipient, followed by more withering put downs once she realises that Trudi is an avid Christian and met Peter at, horror of horrors, a prayer meeting.
With the arrival of Simon’s girlfriend (Freema Agyeman), a soap actress with a penchant for designer clothing, these disparaging remarks flow fast and furiously. The only person who seems to be exempt from the often very amusing, if acerbic, diatribes, is her old friend, Hugh (Desmond Barrit) a gloriously funny old queen. He is also the only one who appears to understand that there is a beating heart beneath the granite like exterior. Mind you, a glimmer of tenderness does emerge during the fleeting visit by Simon (also played by Joseph Millson). Carefully removing shards of glass from the palm of his hand, Kristin listens as her very troubled son tells her about a disturbing childhood incident, caused by her failure to collect him from a station platform. Despite the Florence Nightingale act this mother from Hell is unable to apologise, or even admit she was in the wrong, instead acknowledging his sad tale by retiring to bed.
The acting all round is very sound and Laura Carmichael is a revelation. Perfecting an extremely proficient American accent, she brings a touching naivety to the kindly Trudi who, despite her nervousness, is able to stand her ground when needed. Joseph Millson is excellent in both roles, but is particularly affecting when the “broken” Simon revisits his seven-year-old self, waiting for his mother.
Kay Campbell’s attempts to exonerate Kristin’s behaviour at the end of his play didn’t cut any ice with me, I’m afraid and I felt no pity seeing her slumped at the kitchen table after all her guests have left. Will she ruminate on her sons’ anger and hurt and realise her failings? I very much doubt it.
Friday, 11 August 2017
“Sisters, sisters, there never were such devoted sisters”; or so Irving Birlin’s song goes. Unfortunately, this statement is not always as straightforward as it sounds, as is the case in Lucy Kirkwood’s wonderful new play Mosquitoes, now playing at The Dorfman. The two sisters in this case are Jenny (the incomparable Olivia Colman) and Alice (the excellent Olivia Williams). Two prize Olivias for the price of one!
As with many siblings, the two women couldn’t be more different. Jenny lives in Luton and is often referred to by her mother, Karen (Amanda Boxer), amongst others, as stupid, whereas Alice resides in Geneva and is anything but. For clever sister is a physicist working at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern. A single mother to equally bright, but potentially depressive son, Luke (Joseph Quinn) she is currently “seeing” Henri (Yoli Fuller). Jenny, meanwhile sells health insurance to women with vaginal cancer and is currently grieving over her dead daughter. Belligerent, raucous and hilarious in equal measure (the perfect role for Olivia Coleman) Jenny has added guilt to her grief as she decided against having her daughter vaccinated. On the surface, two complete opposites, explained by Jenny when discussing their mother’s reluctance to give up smoking whilst pregnant with her as “that’s why I’m Forrest Gump and you’re the Wizard of fucking Oz”. But is she as stupid as Alice is clever? Mosquitoes sets out to question this assumption.
The two sisters collide when Jenny, along with mother, descends on Alice and Luke for a prolonged stay. What follows is chaos theory in practice, with Luke running away, Jenny upsetting Henri and Karen slipping into dementia. The sister’s problems with one another are magnified and stretched to breaking point. Can their fractured relationship not only survive, but possibly improve?
Well that’s the social plot of Mosquitoes but there is also a heavy dose of physics, supplied by the white-coated boffin, The Boson (Paul Hilton). But don’t let that put you off, as the interludes during which he subjects us to baffling (well baffling to me) theories as to the ways the universe can end, coincide with wonderful happenings on stage, thanks to Designer Katrina Lindsay’s clever set, Paul Constable’s magnificent lighting and Paul Arditti’s affecting sound.
Lucy Kirkwood has cleverly combined the everday workings of a dysfunctional family with that of the universe. In short, chaos and instablility (Jenny) versus order and stability (Alice) affects their lives just as much as it affects the universe.
Thanks to the superlative acting from all concerned, the answer to the previous assumption about Jenny and Alice is arrived at via 160 minutes of absolute joy. Full of energy and whip smart repartee, it zings along at a cracking pace carrying every human emotion along with it. We discover that intellect doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with practicality. It’s Jenny who copes with the everyday problems of a demented mother and is more in tune with Luke’s problems. Alice not so much! What is also determined is that, emotionally, they are two halves of the same whole.
I can’t praise the two Olivias highly enough, as they both faultlessly portray the polar opposite personalities of the two siblings. Olivia Williams is the ultimate cool, patronising and obsessive, successful professional but perfectly demonstrates her confusion when out of her comfort zone.
Olivia Colman on the other hand is effortless at showing Jenny’s contradictions and her comic timing is second to none. She may often portray the ordinary but her acting is anything but. The woman is a revelation and if she’s appearing in play, film or tv, I’m there!
Amanda Boxer must also be applauded. Playing Karen, a successful scientist, now reduced to peeing on the floor, with a continually depleting memory, she manages to make her amusing and sympathetic in equal measure. Joseph Quinn’s Luke is likewise very believable as the socially conscious but self centred innocent and Paul Hilton is the perfect intense boffin.
With Rufus Norris sensitively handling everything that happens on stage (and so much does), his ability to hold our attention throughout and even want more, Mosquitoes is an absolute joy from beginning to end. It is an absolute triumph.
Wednesday, 2 August 2017
Sitting in the Dress Circle (as I’m a Stall’s snob, this was not ideal) concern was my first thought during the first ten or so minutes of Tennessee William’s 1955 play. Not concern for the production per se, but for the fact that much of what Maggie (the very feline Sienna Miller) was saying to her completely disinterested husband, Brick (the excellent Jack O’Connell) was being lost to me. Although the set in no way resembles an old Mississippi Delta plantation house, the accents are fully rooted in the Deep South, which was part of my problem. Once I’d got my ear fully attuned, everything was fine and to a large extent I thoroughly enjoyed Benedict Andrew’s modern take on this fine American Classic.
Magda Willi’s set, a mixture of gold walls, black furniture and matching black satin sheets is reminiscent of a confined, soulless hotel room and an ultra trendy one at that, with the shower part of the bedroom. Could this be a ploy for us being privy to a sustained view of a naked and, I have to say, extremely fit Mr. O’Connell? In any event, I’m not complaining and after the initial impact of seeing him sitting under the showerhead, baring all when the play opens, by the end of Act One, one almost forgets he’s not fully clothed.
The bedroom in question is based in the house belonging to Big Daddy (Colm Meaney) and Big Mama (Lisa Palfrey), Brick’s parents. Brick and Maggie, along with Brick’s brother Gooper (Brian Gleeson), his wife Mae (Hayley Squires) plus their five children (and one on the way) are staying here, ostensibly to celebrate Big Daddy’s birthday. But there is another reason, especially where Gooper and Mae are concerned. The birthday coincides with Big Daddy’s return from a clinic where he’s been undergoing tests for cancer. Whilst the two parents believe these tests have come back negative, their offspring know that he is dying. Who is to inherit? Will it be Big Daddy’s favourite son, retired football player, Brick, or lawyer, Gooper, who has proved his masculinity by siring six children? And there’s the rub. Maggie and Brick are childless and likely to remain so, because Maggie can no longer get her husband to sleep with her.
Despite much cajoling, flirting and, at one time even crawling on all fours in the manner of a cat on heat, Maggie fails to elicit any flicker of interest from her husband. His interest lies in drinking himself into oblivion, or at least until he reaches “the click” in his head. That and mourning the death of his dead friend, Skipper. Brick is a true alcoholic, highlighted not only by his complete indifference to everything apart from the next glass of whisky, but by the fact that there are four bottles of the stuff lined up in a row downstage next to a bag of ice. But did he have a gay relationship with his friend? When confronted with the insinuation, he vehemently denies that anything physical took place. Unlike Maggie, who admits to seducing her husband’s friend, obviously the cause of Brick’s iciness towards her and possibly the reason for Skipper’s suicide.
Sienna Miller is perfect for the role of Maggie. Sexy to a fault, with a body to die for, she is also able to convey the insecurity of a woman who realises her husband no longer desires her and the desperation and ambition of one who longs to have a child if only to produce an heir for Big Daddy’s fortune.
Although Jack O’Connell’s accent isn’t as assured as Miller’s, he makes a completely believable alcoholic in his role of Brick. And this is no one-note performance. During his bitter head to head with his father, he turns into a deeply sympathetic character.
Colm Meaney is suitably crass as the boastful Big Daddy, constantly referring to the extent of his great wealth whilst puffing on a huge cigar. The ultimate domineering alpha male, disgusted not only by his brash, unsophisticated wife, who keeps her Iphone down the not inconsiderable cleavage of her gaudy frock, but also by his “no neck monster” grandchildren.
Benedict Andrew’s production is, for the most part, a plausible portrayal of William’s play that examines mendacity and lies, I’m just not wholly convinced by the modern day setting. Although the constant use of mobile phones and music blasting forth from iPads works perfectly well, the heavy hint of hidden homosexuality doesn’t. Nowadays there is no need to be so reticent about discussing such matters, so the gay shame felt by Brick rather loses its bite. Also the constant interruption by the five shrieking grandchildren, rather than helping to insert a little light relief into what is a very wordy play, hinders the action and exasperated me just as much as it does Big Daddy.