Sandy Pritchard-Gordon

Sandy Pritchard-Gordon
Theatre Blog

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Follies at The Olivier

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

Apologia at Trafalgar Studios

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

Mosquitoes at The Dorfman

“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

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof at The Apollo Theatre

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.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Lady Day At Emerson's Bar @ Grill

The hype surrounding Audra McDonald is totally justified if her first foray into London’s theatre land is anything to go by, because, to all intents and purposes, she is Billie Holiday.  Not only does she have a voice to die for and one that brings the late great singer back to life, but she perfects Holiday’s ability to perform whilst high on alcohol and or drugs.  Not an easy task.

Billie Holiday’s life was always a struggle, whilst death came early at the age of 44 due to heart and liver failure.  Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, she was the daughter of teenage mother, Sadie and jazz musician, Clarence, who disappeared off the scene when Billie was very young.  Sadie often left her daughter in the care of abusive relatives and by the time she was 9 years old Billie was sent to a school for troubled African American girls.  Returned to her mother (who was then working in a Harlem brothel) a year later, Billie was sexually assaulted.  Not an auspicious beginning and she fared no better in later years when her first husband, James Monroe, introduced her to opium.  Bearing in mind that she was already heavily dependent on alcohol, the relationship floundered, resulting in her meeting trumpeter, Joe Guy.  He, in turn introduced her to heroin and the death of her mother soon after, ensured that her addictions escalated.

By the mid 1950’s, when this play is set, Billie, or Lady Day (the nickname bestowed on her in 1937) was reduced to singing in dives like Emerson’s Bar & Grill.  Following a stint in prison and arrest for narcotics possession, the singer had been refused a work permit to perform in any place that served alcoholic drinks, prohibiting her appearances in nightclubs and jazz clubs.  This particular performance in 1959 was to be one of her last, as she died a few months later.

Not surprisingly, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, is a painful reminder of the toll the singer’s addiction had on her body and mind.  Reminiscing on her life between songs, we get a glimpse of what she has had to endure and the sadness at what her life has become.  There is light heartedness, especially during the performance we saw, when her beloved Chihuahua, Pepi, having licked her face (seemingly on “cue”) suddenly yelps, having got its paw caught in Audra’s ring.  Not remotely amusing as far as the dog is concerned, but a little light relief from the sadness for the audience.

Don’t get me wrong, this production isn’t a dirge; far from it.  It’s an opportunity to watch an extraordinary talent up close and personal, whilst enjoying expert musicians plying their craft. Billie’s relationship with her pianist and musical director (Shelton Bacton) is a treat.  Always on the alert as to the state of mind and inebriation of his singer, Bacton tries to second-guess her every move and the rapport between them is an unforced treat.

The brilliant Christopher Oram has also done a wonderful job in transforming the front few rows of Wyndhams Theatre into a 1950’s American “dive” bar.  Circular tables and chairs replace front row seats, whilst the stage accommodates audience members seated at tables as well as the three musicians and Audra.  Seated at Table 4, we were treated to the singer approaching us for a cigarette.  One member of our party had the honour of lighting said ciggie, which I know added to his enjoyment of an evening watching the reincarnation of the troubled but superb Billie Holiday aka Audra MacDonald.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Girl From The North Country at The Old Vic

Conor McPherson is one of my favourite playwrights and he doesn’t disappoint with his first foray into the realms of musical theatre.  Girl From the North Country (a song off Bob Dylan’s 1963 album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) had it’s first preview last night and is an absolute joy.

As the playwright states in the programme “this new musical is not a greatest hits compilation or a classic West End blockbuster where the songs drive the plot.  It’s a conversation between the songs and the story” …. a big plus in my view.  Rather than having the cast sing to one another, they do so to the audience using old-fashioned stand microphones, and each of them plays a performer broadcasting the story, as well as the character within it.  The only instruments used are those that existed in the 1930’s and several of the cast members aid the musicians on stage with a spot of drumming.
Set in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth Minnesota during the Depression of the early 1930’s, the action takes place in a guesthouse owned by Nick (Ciaran Hinds) and his wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson).  It is left to Nick to run the place, because Elizabeth has dementia, whilst their son, Gene (Sam Reid) is a drunk with delusions of being a writer.  Their adopted black daughter, Marianne (Sheila Atim) helps, but being pregnant and without a partner, Nick is desperate for her to have the stability of having a ring on her finger.  The guests themselves include a widow with whom Nick is involved, a couple with a son who has mental problems, a bible salesman and a black boxer.  Add to this broad mix of society, the local doctor (Ron Cook) who narrates the story, an eclectic mix of Dylan’s songs, sung to perfection, plus the brilliance of McPherson’s story telling and the result is a great evening’s entertainment.

It’s great to see McPherson’s frequent collaborators, Ciaran Hinds, Ron Cook, Jim Norton and Stanley Townsend on the Old Vic stage, whilst the newcomers are equally as good.  Those cast members who sing (the majority I might add) all bring something utterly new to Dylan’s songs.  It’s as if we’re hearing them for the first time and they all highlight the songwriter’s brilliance.  

It’s almost unfair to single out a cast member as they’re all so good.  Ciaran Hinds is his usual superb self, whilst Shirley Henderson, exquisitely captures the unique liberation that dementia can bring.  She has no “off” button and her antics lighten the mood to some of the sadder aspects of the story.  The singing of all is also exemplary.  Each performer has a totally unique voice (no standard musical theatre singers here) and when, as often happens, they are joined by some of the other cast, it all blends in so perfectly.  One particularly strong voice is that of the brilliant Arinze Kene (so, so good in the recent One Night In Miami at The Donmar) who plays the boxer.  And Sheila Atim’s voice sends the spine tingling.

How wise of Artistic Director, Matthew Warchus to insist that McPherson direct his own play.  He doesn’t hit a bum note, just like the musicians and singers and if the first night in front of a paying audience is this good, I can only urge people to go and buy a ticket for future ones.

Just for the record, the singer, Lulu, sat behind us last night and obviously enjoyed it as much as we did, for she quietly sang along to most of the numbers.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Common At The Olivier

Oh dear, Anne-Marie Duff does her level best, but even she can’t transform D.C. Moore’s overly ambitious play into an engaging piece of theatre.  The central subject of land enclosure during the 18th and 19th centuries, at a time when the common people of England were very much entrenched in the mystical and spiritual world, is a promising theme. Unfortunately the playwright’s decision to include an adjective laden and extremely confusing language, defeats the commendable subject matter and, for that matter, the listener. No amount of ominous drumming, blood and guts and heavy (and I do mean heavy) doses of swearing can relieve the tedium and bewilderment as to what is actually happening and why.

The first few minutes are promising enough.  The huge Olivier stage is transformed into a bleak wasteland, whilst the large cast, encased in animal masks and the like, trudge in single file upstage, silhouetted against an uncompromising skyline.  Drumbeats accompany them and the menacing air continues as the peasants form a circle and their ‘leader’, wearing, what looks like a wicker waste paper basket on his head, sets fire to some fencing.  We are intrigued, but it’s short lived, because the lights then go up, Anne-Marie Duff’s Mary, dressed in scarlet gown and tricorn hat enters the stage and talks to the audience.  Our first introduction to Moore’s over-ripe and under clear language and the beginning of the play’s rapid descent.

Although much of Mary’s dialogue is indecipherable, we do learn that she has returned to her home village (presumably in Norfolk as Norwich is mentioned later but, as everyone’s dialect is different, this is just a guess) from London, where she worked as a prostitute.  She informs us that she is a female rogue who has conned a London aristocrat and has come back home in order to collect her female lover, Laura (an underused Cush Jumbo) so they can run away together.  Laura is living with her brother, King (John Dagleish) who has problems reconciling himself to the fact that she is his sister.  Has an incestuous relationship taken place?  Like so much in this play, we’re not sure, but he has definitely sold Laura the story that he thrashed Mary senseless and watched her drown, which is why she suddenly disappeared.  Actually Mary has a habit of raising herself from the dead but that’s another bewildering plotline.  As is the question as to whether this ‘whore, liar, thief’ actually wants to do good by halting the enclosing of the land or do bad by siding with those who want progress.

Common was originally scheduled to last just over three hours, so the fact that it now runs for just two hours, twenty must hint that the rehearsal room was perturbed that all was not going well.   It is billed as dark and funny.  Dark certainly; there is a disembowelling, Wicker Man-type pagan rituals, syphilis, and shootings a plenty, including that of Eggy Tom (an excellent Lois Chimimba), a young boy who owns a talking crow.  Funny?  Well the talking crow is quite amusing.

Jeremy Herrin, the director, previously gave us the wonderful People, Places & Things, and Wolf Hall, amongst others, so that coupled with the casting of Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo, means that Common promises much.  Sadly it doesn’t deliver.  It’s a no from me I’m afraid.