Sandy Pritchard-Gordon

Sandy Pritchard-Gordon
Theatre Blog

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at The Harold Pinter Theatre

Imelda Staunton does it again, this time nailing the part of Martha in Edward Albee’s landmark play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at The Harold Pinter Theatre.  She is aided and abetted by Conleth Hill, as husband George, along with Imogen Poots and Luke Treadaway as the other unhappily married couple in this blistering 1962 play that more than stands the test of time.  Add to this mix, the spot on direction by James Macdonald and the three hours speed by.

Staunton begins the play on a high note when we hear her braying and yelling offstage as she and Hill unlock the front door of their tired and drab 1950’s New England home having returned from a particularly dull faculty party hosted by Martha’s father.  He is the high rolling principal of the college, whilst portly George hasn’t risen in the ranks and still remains a nobody in the history department.  This, amongst many other things rankles his relentlessly brash and often downright unpleasant wife.  Not that George is the docile put upon sap that he appears to be as he pops on his slippers and cardigan.  George’s acerbic wit comes to the fore once it becomes clear that the night is not yet over because Martha has asked a young couple they’ve just met round for drinks.  In fact it soon transpires that, although the outrageous Martha spends her whole life goading and belittling the excuse for a man she has married, her ‘victim’ is actually a ‘professional’ manipulator.  He no more wants this self-satisfied career scientist and his seemingly mouse-like wife round for drinks than a kick in the head, but now they’re here, he is quite happy to inveigle them into joining in the marital mind games he and Martha are so used to playing.  Humiliate the Host, is closely followed by Get the Guests and Hump the Hostess, all initiated by the quietly spoken but no less lethal member of this dysfunctional couple.

Imelda ‘pocket rocket’ Staunton is so, so good at portraying the ghastly, disillusioned Martha that there could have been the likelihood of her upstaging everyone else in the production if they weren’t so well cast.  Conleth Hill’s controlled and nuanced performance and his ability to make the most of Albee’s dry and witty dialogue makes him more than a match for the boozy Martha.  They are a pairing made in (well not heaven exactly, for this marriage is hell) and spar as if their lives depend on it.  Imogen Poots, in her first stage appearance, and Luke Treadaway are likewise perfectly believable.  His character, Nick, looks on in bemusement and, at times, disgust, whilst Honey veers from frailty to steeliness once she has digested a few brandies.

It is patently obvious that George and Martha’s ‘performance’ has been honed to perfection over the years.  This is the way they live their lives; her yelling and denigrating, him quietly disparaging.  But tonight Martha crosses the line in the sand and mentions the couple’s twenty-one year old son.  This is the one and only rule of the lifelong game that sustains their marriage and she has broken it.

The result of this aberration is, thanks to Staunton’s mastery of inhabiting a role, devastating to watch.  Her shrieks are reduced to a whisper, although, of course, you can still hear every syllable.  Finally the plot of this game the pair have constructed to protect themselves from the unbearable truth is laid bare.  How will they survive?

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Hamlet at The Almeida

Comparisons between theatrical productions are, for the most part, unhelpful. But I was interested in seeing Andrew Scott’s interpretation of Hamlet, having watched Benedict Cumberbatch in the role at the Barbican in 2015 ….. Sherlock versus Moriarty!

As usual, Andrew Scott does not disappoint.  He is magnetic. His palpable misery at losing his father brought tears to my eyes as much as to his.  At times his voice breaks with grief, at others it almost becomes a whisper, so we lean in to make sure we miss nothing and then, out of the blue he produces a show of rage before adding a dose of self-mockery and wit to the proceedings.  In short, Mr.Scott highlights a range of emotions that would follow anyone on discovering the murder of their father by an uncle newly married to their mother.
This Hamlet sees the ghost of his father via a bank of security cameras and this is one of several clever devices the director Robert Icke uses in this modern day production.  This isn’t the first time we’ve witnessed hand held cameras and video screens in the theatre of late, but for once they’re not gimmicks for the sake of it, and enhance rather than diminish the tragedy that is unfolding.  There are also plenty of pauses, some of them extraordinarily prolonged but it allows us to inhale everything that’s happening, ensuring that we understand all that’s going on.

Hildegard Bechtler’s sleek modern set also helps Icke’s decision to give more clarity to his Hamlet.  A huge, up-stage, sliding glass door allows us access to various scenes that are spoken about but not seen.  We are in no doubt that Gertrude is in complete love (or possibly lust) with Claudius, for through this door we witness the pair of them dancing the wedding night away.  The poor lovesick pair can’t keep their eyes or hands off one another.  This modern of modern directors doesn’t go in for gestures and declarative acting.  His cast have the ability to make us hear lines we appear not to have heard before, so measured and considered is their delivery.  He has also hit on various ingenious ways to make this production up to the minute.  The player’s scene is staged so that the royal party are filmed, sitting in the front row of the theatre and watching the enactment of Claudius’s crime.  We see his squirming reaction in close-up on a screen before he quietly exits up-stage and the play pauses.  Is there a technical hitch?  No…. just the second interval!

The entire cast, for the most part are exemplary.  Juliet Stephenson’s Gertrude leaves us in no doubt that she is a mother, who truly loves her son, whilst being petrified of him during the bedroom scene.  There is a genuine tenderness between her and Hamlet.  Likewise the always excellent Peter Wight as Polonius is a totally believable father and his scenes with Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) are beautifully touching.  She, likewise, makes a very believable Ophelia, apart from being a little too quiet at times.  We can forgive her, however as she is very credible in the mad scene, which can often be forced and clichéd.

There has been much criticism about the length of this Hamlet, which I don’t altogether understand.  Hamlet is a long play; we all know that.  And the only time that length is a problem is when the production is so dire that leaving the theatre is the best and only option.  The Almeida’s latest offering is anything but dire and I, for one, didn’t even notice that it lasts three and three-quarter hours.  Instead, I just feel that I witnessed something very special.  And, please take note Sherlock, that your nemesis, Moriarty, didn’t resort to political speeches at the finish.  Instead we trooped out of the auditorium to the strains of Bob Dylan, who had added his own wonder at various intervals during this marvellous production.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Twelfth Night at The Olivier

An actress playing Malvolio, Olivia having an all female household, including her fool, what is the theatre world coming to?  Actually the casting of this lively, bawdy and extremely funny adaptation directed by Simon Goodman is inspired.  And of course we shouldn’t question gender reversal when dealing with Shakespeare plays in general and Twelfth Night in particular.  The whole premise of this play, originally written as entertainment for the close of the Christmas Season, is about a world in reverse.  Twins, separated following a shipwreck, with the female, Viola, disguising herself as a boy, renaming herself Cesario and falling in love with Orsino.  Countess Olivia subsequently falling for Cesario, thinking she is a he and the self important Malvolio under the illusion that Olivia is in love with him.

Tamsin Grieg is Malvolio, well Malvolia actually, and she dazzles.  Ever the actress who has the wonderful ability to have an audience in stitches with just the smallest of facial ticks, her facial asides here are a joy. Initially clad head to toe in black, including the fiercest of black bob haircuts, she morphs into the uninhibited, if somewhat self-conscious exhibitionist clad in a canary yellow swimsuit.  As if that weren’t enough, her ensemble comes complete with revolving nipple tassles and matching tights with black cross garters the whole of which is encased in a white pierrot cape.  Her rictus smile remains intact even whilst she is navigating a hazardous staircase in high stilletos and she is perfect at portraying the discomfort her change in attire has wrought.  Whilst we understand her original disdain and priggish pomposity is more than enough reason for Maria and her compatriots to get their own back and likewise take a huge delight in it, we eventually feel shame for our complicity.  Malvolia’s line, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” is delivered with one of Grieg’s famous sidelong glances, leaving us in no doubt that we, the audience, are included in this.  Her abject misery as she makes her final ascent of the stairs gives us all a twinge of guilt.

Soutra Gilmour has made full use of the Olivier’s drum stage by designing an ingenious triangular folding set complete with staircase.  Starting off as the floundering ship, well actually, more ocean liner, the triangular patterns turn into the various scenes including, amongst others, garden, plunge pool and gay club.  Yes, that’s right, gay club, complete with drag queen singing a Hamlet soliloquy!  As you may have gathered this Twelfth Night is geared more towards laughs than poetic melancholy, but all the cast are so adept at comedy that the whole thing is a feel good joy. 

Malvolia isn’t the only cross casting for Feste, the fool, is amusingly brought to life by Doon Mackichan, resplendent in glittery boots, bright tights and shorts.  Who knew she had such a sweet singing voice?  Sir Toby Belch is an ageing rocker type, a drawling, dissolute, drunk played to perfection by Tim McMullan.  Daniel Rigby is his side-kick, Sir Andrew Aquacheek, complete with hideous man bun, clad head to toe in pink and full of mincing hilarity.  I last saw him at The National in One Man Two Governors, alongside Oliver Chris and he also appears here as the lovelorn Count Orsino in full playboy mode.  They were extremely funny then and are no different now.

Phoebe Fox is an entertaining Olivia who easily changes from sophisticated lady of the manor to youngster in the throes of a major crush.  Olivia, the object of her passion, is sweetly played by Tamara Lawrance, especially when she realises she has ignited some kind of passion in her boss, Count Orsino.  Daniel Ezra as her brother, Sebastian is equally charming and they seem genuinely thrilled when eventually reunited at the end of the play.

 I could quibble about the seeming fluctuation in period between the 1930’s and present day, but that seems churlish seeing as how I left the theatre with a smile on my face having been entertained for three hours, which literally sped by.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Art at The Old Vic

Matthew Warchus first directed Yasmina Reza’s play, Art, in 1996 when it garnered an Olivier Award.  I didn’t get to see it then so am thrilled he has decided to reprise it now at The Old Vic.

Art is ostensibly a savagely funny play about - well art, or at least a canvas painted white with hardly noticeable different shades of diagonal white lines.  Or, as one of the three friends in the play calls it, “shit”.  It is this comment that causes discontent and, ultimately, downright animosity between them.  The owner of said painting is Dermatologist, Serge (Rufus Sewell) who has paid 100,000 euros for the privilege of hanging it on his wall.  Mark (Paul Ritter) is his long-term close friend and the one who names the painting “shit”, whilst the third member of the trio is Yvan (Tim Key).  Ivan is soon to be married and is the peacemaker of the group, the one who constantly “sits on the fence”.  Mark, on the other hand, sounds off and scoffs at pretty much everything. 

Within a few minutes it becomes obvious that this white painting has become the catalyst for highlighting the basis of the friendship between these three men.  Mark can’t begin to understand how his oldest friend who once (or so he thought) looked up to him, could have lost all taste and self respect by purchasing such an abhorrent piece of art work.  Ivan’s reward for being the conciliatory member of the trio, is for the other two to viciously turn on him, whilst the rather self satisfied Serge is hurt by the smugness of his Philistine chum, who dares to call his new acquisition, shit.

Reza’s dialogue (brilliantly adapted from the French by Christopher Hampton) crackles, sparkles and often wounds.  At one point, poor old Ivan’s frailties are so cruelly exposed by his two friends that there is an audible gasp from the audience.  The men make us wince, groan and laugh ‘til it hurts, whilst they encircle one another, boxer-like or gang up two to one.

The three actors are exemplary, as is Matthew Warchus’s direction.  The impossibly handsome Rufus Sewell who seems to improve with age – how can that be – makes for a perfect Serge.  Cool and sophisticated, he has just the right balance between self-satisfaction, confidence and insecurity and, as I’ve said, is very, very easy on the eye.  Paul Ritter is hilarious as the bitter Mark, who can’t reconcile the fact that he is no longer the alpha male in his friendship with Serge (if he ever was, of course).  And then we come to Tim Key, who is genuinely moving and rightly deserves the round of applause that follows his mounting hysterical monologue concerning mothers, step-mothers and the wording of a wedding invitation.

Following her Olivier Award for best comedy, Reza jokingly said that she thought she had written a tragedy.  In many ways there is a bleakness to this story about the near disintegration of three men’s friendship but, thanks to Warchus directing with a lightness and being unafraid to milk certain pauses to the limit, the humour comes out on top.  The scene where three men throw their olive stones into a stainless steel dish is a sublime piece of theatre.

I have certainly put my money where my mouth is, having seen Art twice within a space of ten days.  The second viewing was as funny as the first.  Thank you Mr. Warchus for reprising this “big small play”; I loved it.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Hedda Gabler at The Lyttleton

It often feels that Ivo van Hove’s modern-dress production of Patrick Marber’s adapation of Ibsen’s classic has veered away from the original to such a degree that it is a brand new play.  But of course this is just a misconception brought about because of this amazing director’s ability to turn a classic (as he also did with the brilliant A View From The Bridge) into something fresh and new.  He is aided and abetted by a paired down but accurate new working of the text by the great Patrick Marber and Ruth Wilson, an actress who has made her name synonymous with nuance.

Hedda Gabler at The National is radical and so gripping that even those of us who know the play well wonder what will happen next.  Ruth Wilson is extraordinary, but no change there.  She was a shining star as Stella In A Streetcar Named Desire and Anna Christie both at The Donmar and continues to ensure that The Affair on Sky Atlantic is a must see.  I also remember watching her play Jane Eyre opposite Toby Stephen’s Rochester on television  some years ago and thinking this is one special actress.

And now she is Hedda Gabler, a part that she has apparently shied away from playing until now.  Ivo van Hove was one of the reasons for her volte-face and it is easy to see why.  He is the director of the moment who manages to wiggle his way into the mindset of a playwright and squeeze something extraordinary out of his/her text. 

Unlike Sheridan Smith’s more sympathetic Hedda at The Old Vic, Ruth Wilson’s version is very difficult to like.  It could be all too easy to categorise her as solely evil, if it weren’t for the fact that this young actress is able to make her so much more.  Unencumbered by corsets and the strictures of Victorian society, this modern Hedda’s “imprisonment” is of her own making.  Holed up in a stark modern apartment on return from honeymoon to the academic, Tesman (Kyle Soller) she is incapable of getting out and doing her “own thing”.  That she doesn’t love her new husband is perfectly clear (her facial expressions and body language attest to this) but this is not the elderly, domineering Tesman we’re used to seeing.  Kyle Soller plays him as intense but not without humour and the only demands he seems to make are for them to become parents asap.  Over her dead body!  Sharing an apartment with him, let alone a bed is obviously anathema to this bored, self-absorbed, at times cruel but ultimately wretched young woman.

Hedda’s raison d’etre is to destruct.  Initially it’s the buckets of flowers inhabiting the apartment that feel the brunt of her frustration; the ones that aren’t left strewn across the floor are stapled to the walls.  Finally it’s herself, but not until she has cruelly destroyed the beloved manuscript of her old flame, Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji).

It’s telling that there are no doors to Jan Versweyveld’s high tec apartment;  the characters, come and go via the auditorium.  Except for Berte, the maid (Eva Magyar) and Hedda herself, for they have nowhere to go.  There are visitors but they’re not particularly welcome, despite her hatred for being alone.  She is complicated this one!  Mrs Elvsted (Sinead Matthews) does illicit something approaching admiration.  She has bravely left her husband in order to be with the reformed character, Lovborg.  If only Hedda had that much courage.

Apart from the buckets of flowers, an old sofa and Hedda’s fathers’ pistols in a glass case, the only major prop on stage is an upright piano at which Hedda is slumped at the start of the play.  Barefooted and dressed in a silk, clingy slip, she tinkers on the keys and cuts a solitary figure. Later, the strains of Joni Mitchell’s Blue add to the melancholic atmosphere until, finally the inevitable happens.

The entire cast is strong, although I did have trouble hearing Kate Duchene’s Aunt Juliana at the beginning of the play.  But Rafe Spall as Judge Brack is especially fine.  The ultimate controlling male, he exerts an unsettling power over Hedda, invading her space, goading her and even covering her with his can of tomato juice.

There are many more superlatives I could use but suffice it to say this Hedda Gabler packs a devastating punch and is a definite must see.

Friday, 9 December 2016

The Children at The Royal Court

Lucy Kirkwood’s witty dialogue ensures that, despite its underlying seriousness, her new play is never depressing.  Playing at The Royal Court, The Children is set in the kitchen of a seaside cottage situated close to a nuclear power station and features three retired nuclear scientists. There has been a disaster at the station, so husband and wife, Hazel & Robin (Ron Cook and Deborah Findlay) have left their family home and moved here as it is just outside the exclusion zone.  An unexpected visitor turns up and upsets the equilibrium.  She is Rose (Francesca Annis) an old work colleague and, it appears, one time lover of roguish Robin.  Is she here to win him back or has she something more sinister in mind?  Is the sacrifice she wants them to make one step too far even for people of a certain age, especially when there are children involved.  Moreover a daughter who has “issues” and is particularly needy?

The two women couldn’t be more opposite.  Hazel, the yoga practicing,  careful and practical one, married with children and Rose, single, childless and risk taking.  Would they ever have been close friends?  Probably not, especially when we suspect that Hazel is fully aware of what has gone on between her and her husband.

The play cleverly combines the mundane with the extraordinary, the pleasant with the shocking and is acted with aplomb by all concerned.  One is in no doubt from the word go that Hazel’s reaction to Rose’s appearance is in complete contrast to her husband’s, but the sublime Deborah Findlay brilliantly goes through the motion of being the perfect welcoming host, at least until Rose pushes her to the limits.

The Children doesn’t preach about the dangers of nuclear power.  In fact it doesn’t preach at all.  The calamity at the power station is a symbol for the type of world we are bequeathing to our children and the responsibilities for which each generation is responsible.

As I have said, there are bleak themes.  Robin has made the mistake of returning to his old house to tend to the cattle they abandoned and the Geiger counter eventually reveals that he is radio active.  Cancer often rears its ugly head and day-to-day living is hard following the explosion.  But life must go on and Kirkwood relies on the British stiff upper lip and recourse to humour to ensure that her beautifully written, well directed and evocatively lit play, although dramatic in theme has more laughs than tears.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Nice Fish at The Harold Pinter Theatre

Mark Rylance spent his childhood years in the States, part of them beside the crumbling shores of Lake Michigan.  With his play Nice Fish, which he wrote with the collaboration of poet Louis Jenkins, he is revisiting this experience by setting it on one of the frozen lakes of Wisconsin.  He is obviously very taken with Jenkins’ poems, who also spent his informative years living beside one of these dark, deep waters, and this surreal and whimsical production is based around them.  First aired in America it has now transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre, luckily giving us another chance to see one of, if not the greatest stage actors of our time.

The long, hard winter is coming to a close and Ron (Rylance) and Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) are two friends taking time out together fishing on the ice.  Erik is a seasoned fisherman, Ron not so much.  They spend their time, Godot- like, ruminating on life, love and the landscape, all the while dealing with whatever weather this part of the world can throw at them. The two men are consumate actors and the scene where they battle with a particularly fearsome gale, makes the audience sit tighter in their seats to prevent being blown away!   Despite being very different in character (Erik has a serious air and tends to worry, whilst Ron, the eternal optimist, likes to clown around) the two men kind of get along!  Louis Jenkins’ humerous and atomospheric poems pepper the dialogue and the skill and physicality of the cast ensure this strange play is thought provoking, funny and endearing. 
A few other characters join them on the ice at various times throughout the play.  Their first visitor is a bumptious official from the Department of Natural Resources (Bob Davis), quickly followed by a fairy-like female called Flo (Kayli Carter) and her spear fishing grandfather Wayne (Raye Birk).  A couple of tiny puppets also pepper the upstage icy wasteland, which, along with the distant minute trees help to highlight the vastness of the environment in which the play is set.

Todd Rosenthal has covered the entire stage in white polystyrene, which does such a good job of giving the appearance of snow covered ice, that one can quite understand why Ron is encased in a bright orange parka with matching salopettes and ear flap hat.  The cold is so palpable that when Flo arrives dressed in non cold weather gear, the main thought is, “I bet she’s freezing!”. 

Claire Van Kampen, directs with a lightness of touch and elicits the very best performances from the cast, especially the playwright himself.  But then she is Mrs. Rylance, so no surprise there.  Not that I think her husband can ever deliver a bad performance.  He has the audience in the palm of his hand from the word go and laughter abounds even when the absurdity of the piece is at its zenith and his wrestle with a tent is a joy to behold.  We soon begin to realise that the abrupt blackouts that occur throughout the 1hr 40mins are actually one of the least strange things taking place.  Can anyone explain the appearance of a palm tree festooned with fairy lights?  No?  Does it matter? Not one bit.  After all, Mark Rylance himself states that he doesn’t really know what the play is about and will be making sense of it, word by word, as are we the audience.

All I do know is that Nice Fish is a theatrical recipe that includes mysticism, surrealism, absurdity and a dollop of truth.  The humour of Spike Milligan and Monty Python springs to mind and that’s no bad thing at all, especially with a cast and creative team all pulling together to provide a joyous evening of theatre.