Sandy Pritchard-Gordon

Sandy Pritchard-Gordon
Theatre Blog

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Quiz at the Noel Coward Theatre

Which TV Quiz Show made a British Army Major famous, or, more correctly, infamous?  Which prolific young British, often political, playwright continually comes up with extremely successful plays?  The answer to both these questions lies in Quiz, now showing at The Noel Coward Theatre, following its successful run at Chichester.

Quiz by James Graham tells the story of Charles Ingram’s £1,000,000 win on ITV’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.  Or to be more specific whether or not he cheated in order to win this top prize.  So cleverly has Robert Jones   staged the play that one is immediately transported into a TV recording studio immediately on entering the auditorium.  This is theatre at its most unique, ensuring that we become immediately involved, initially as a studio audience getting entertained by the warm up guy and then as jury, deciding on whether the accused are innocent or guilty.

The case against Ingram, his wife Diana and their alleged accomplice, Tecwen Whittock centred on whether or not he was drawn to the correct answers by the tactical coughing of the latter.  As the prosecution states in the first act, how is it that the contestant loses two of his “lives” in earlier rounds but still goes on to hit the jackpot when recording resumes?  After all his rather bumbling manner when faced with the more difficult questions doesn’t suggest a man poised to garner the main prize.  It looks more and more as if the Major is guilty as charged, verified by the fact that the audience by and large agree, with fewer pressing the innocent button on their keypads at the end of Act One.

This result undergoes a bit of a turn around after Ingram’s defence barrister passionately states her case.  Drawing forensic attention to the editing carried out on the incriminating tape and asking pertinent questions as to the coughing itself, doubts appear.  Could it be that Ingram’s bumbling manner was a ploy to make him seem more interesting in front of the cameras?  On Press Night the majority of us obviously thought yes, as at the end of the play the innocent button got the full treatment.

The entire cast are spot on and director Daniel Evans has the rather manic atmosphere of a TV studio down to a tee.  The potted history of TV game shows, to highlight the fact that we’re a nation of quiz obsessives, ensures a wonderful trip down memory lane. And the excellent Keir Charles not only takes on the job of warm up guy, but assumes the identity of each game show host to great comic effect. His hilarious parody of Chris Tarrant is belly achingly funny.

The entire cast revel in their roles, especially Gavin Spokes as Ingram, who perfectly portrays an army man, rather unwittingly becoming caught up in “show business” but once there, warming to the task. Stephanie Street as his wife, Diana is excellent and Sarah Woodward makes a totally believable QC.

James Graham’s exploration of popular culture and how public opinion can be manipulated when presented with selective facts, is light hearted and at times extremely funny.  Unfortunately, the real outcome for Ingram was anything but light hearted in that he spent 18 months in prison and, along with his wife was declared bankrupt in 2004.  Were all three really innocent?  I guess we will never know.

All I do know is that I’m thrilled the producers have seen fit to transfer this hugely entertaining play to the West End, ensuring the likes of me can get to see it.  

Friday, 13 April 2018

Fanny & Alexander at The Old Vic

On hearing that Fanny & Alexander, Stephen Beresford’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s classic film, runs for 3hrs 30mins, I was rather concerned that I’d booked a ticket.  This concern wasn’t diminished at the start when the sailor suited boy, Alexander, comes down stage to gleefully tell us that we’re about to witness the longest play in the history of the world …. Aaagh!

However, there was no need for concern as this play concerning actors playing actors is an absolute joy, not least because the wonderful Penelope Wilton plays a major part.  She is sublime.  Actually, the whole cast are excellent and Max Webster’s direction ensures that the entire play goes at such a lick that the time whizzes by.

Fanny & Alexander’s Swedish family, the Ekdahls are a bunch of warm hearted, extravagant exhibitionists who, when not showing off with their amateur theatricals, like nothing better than to sit down to over the top, lengthy dinners.  The play is set in the early 20th century in the Swedish town of Uppsala and, as the title suggests centres around the two children of Carl and Emilie Ekdahl.  The couple run their own theatre which, to a large extent, is overseen by Penelope Wilton’s matriarchal Helena Ekdahl.  But when Carl suddenly dies, the fun and laughter dissipates as the rather distant Emilie marries the Bishop of Upsala, bringing Fanny & Alexander’s idyllic childhood to an abrupt end.  The step father is the polar opposite of the imaginative, outgoing Carl.  Dour and puritanical, Edward frowns upon Alexander’s delight in over the top storytelling, denouncing the boy as a liar who needs strict disciplining.

The mood of the play from light-hearted comedy to drama is the result of Edward’s desire to rid his stepchildren (especially Alexander) of, as he sees it, their irreligious behaviour.  The punishments become more and more sinister, the children more and more unhappy and Emilie more and more disillusioned.

Luckily, Kevin Doyle’s Bishop isn’t just a two dimensional ‘baddie’.  He excellently shows us that Edward’s raison d’etre is to uphold his Lutheran Protestant values, not only in himself but also his new family.  He has no time for any kind of playfulness, especially the unconventional kind so beloved of the Ekdahl’s. 
The extended Ekdahl family are, likewise, brilliantly brought to life by the large cast, especially Jonathan Slinger as the larger than life, Uncle Gustav and Michael Pennington’s wily and cunning Isak Jacob. 

However, it is the magnificent Penelope Wilton who ultimately steals the show.  Her comic timing is as spot on as ever and we are never in any doubt that this wise woman will make sure that all will be well.  Imperious she may be but there is no doubting the passion she has for her family.  When Alexander asks why people can’t be happy all the time and why happiness always turns to unhappiness sooner or later, she asks if he wants the adult answer.  After a longish pause, following his acquiescent nod, she says, “I don’t know”.

Fanny & Alexander is semi-autobiographical, as Alexander, Fanny and Bishop Edward are based on Ingmar Bergman, his sister Margareta and father Erik Bergman respectively.  It is one of Ingmar Bergman’s most successful films and, thanks to this production, has transferred beautifully to the theatre.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre

As various members of the cast have a problem understanding exactly what’s going on in Harold Pinter’s 1957 play, The Birthday Party, what chance do we mere audience members have?  Not that it matters, of course, because it’s typical Pinter fare; everyone can make what they will of the events unfolding on stage.  In an interview in The Sunday Time’s Culture Magazine, Toby Jones (Stanley in this production) even goes so far as to say that the playwright himself wasn’t too sure. Freddie Jones, Toby’s father, had played Stanley in Pinter’s1964 revival at the Aldwych and he subsequently told his son that “Pinter the director, would frequently question what Pinter the author was writing about”. 

What is obvious is that the play’s format resembles those in which Pinter appeared during his weekly rep years.  Those thrillers where the actor (often Pinter himself) playing the detective would appear during the third-act to explain and make sense of the bothersome plot.  In fact, The Birthday Party was written during some such repertory tour, although this time the play was the farce Doctor in the House. No doubt he was staying in the same kind of seaside digs as the one portrayed here at the Harold Pinter Theatre, so lovingly realised by the Quay Brothers.

The Birthday Party was first produced nearly sixty years ago and received a critical mauling.  Not so today and quite rightly so.  The cast and director, Ian Rickson have seen to that.  They are all, without exception, superb.  The play itself still retains its strangeness, but the consensus of opinion now is that just because we don’t necessarily understand what it’s about, doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless.  Far from it, because the main thing about the play is that it’s awash with meaning; everything foreshadows and is connected to something else.

So, onto what we do know, or think we know about the play.  It’s set in a seaside boarding house run by Petey (Peter Wight) and his wife Meg (Zoe Wanamaker).  They have a long-standing lodger, the supposed ex pianist Stanley (Toby Jones).  They are visited by two strangers, Goldberg (Stephen Mangan) and his sidekick McCann (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) who say they know Stanley and want to organise his birthday party.  Whether or not it is his birthday we can only guess, because Stanley denies all knowledge!  This party can in no way be termed celebratory, especially for neighbour Lulu (Pearl Mackie) and Stanley himself and the sense of unease that surrounds the gathering often borders on the sinister.  Why do the strangers really want to see Stanley, does he actually know them and what will eventually happen to him?

The hint of menace that pervades this production is due in no small measure to the wonderful Stephen Mangan.  His extraordinary array of teeth are shown to great effect, as his sinister Goldberg delivers each malicious comment accompanied by a synthetic smile.  Unlike Goldberg, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s insecure McCann can’t always contain his psychopathic tendencies and he perfectly encapsulates a man teetering on the edge of sanity.  Whilst Stanley is the ultimate victim of the piece, Toby Jones manages to imbue him with a vicious streak, whether it be sniping at his landlady or verbal point scoring with his inquisitors.  He is ideally cast as the shambolic, sad little man but he brings much more to the role than just that.  It is easy for us to assume that he is well used to these bully boy tactics and that maybe, just maybe he really was once a paid-up member of their organisation - whatever that may be.

Zoe Wanamaker completely absorbs herself into the role of the vacuous Meg.  Infatuated with Stanley, she is by turns motherly and flirtatious when in his company.  There is no doubt that this rather lonely character was once something of a tease, highlighted to great effect when she preens and simpers when dressed up for the party in her ‘best frock’.  Peter Wight is his usual excellent self as her mild-mannered husband, Petey, whilst Pearl Mackie’s abused Lulu brings a touch of vamp to the proceedings.

An article in the programme by writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough discusses using memory as a weapon.  And The Birthday Party can be summarised as a play about how the three main characters remember the past.  Each uses their memories to different effect, but thanks to Pinter’s genius, the one constant is that what they remember cannot be disputed.  This is what helps to ensure that the pervading but subtle menace never lets up. 

Sunday, 25 March 2018

The York Realist at The Donmar


The intimate Donmar Warehouse lends itself perfectly to the equally intimate kitchen setting of Peter Gill’s play, The York Realist.  Set in the sixties, this understated, but pitch perfect play concerns a gay couple with totally different lifestyles.  George (Ben Batt), a farmer, lives with his ailing mother (Lesley Nicol) in a remote part of Yorkshire, whilst John (Jonathan Bailey), an aspiring theatre director from London, is temporarily in York directing a production of The York Mystery Plays.  They get to know one another as George has a small part in the production.  Surprisingly it is the working-class country boy who is completely at ease with his sexual proclivities from the get go (at least in John’s presence).  Whereas shy, middle-class John is more hesitant in accepting the sexual charge between the two of them. 

When the play opens, George’s mother has just died and he receives an unexpected visit from John who is back in York for a week working at the Theatre Royal.  We then go back in time to try and explain the palpable tension that now exists between the two men and why, despite the release from being at his adored mother’s constant side, George is still unable to fly his rather ramshackle nest and move to a different existence with his lover.  It’s not just the class divide that prevents the two ending up happy ever after, but the spiritual ties that tend to bind us to our roots, however much we often refuse to admit it.

Robert Hastie directs the play with subtlety and charm and, unlike so many plays with a gay theme, there is no physical sexuality on stage.  Looks and words are all that is needed to produce the obvious sexual chemistry between the two men.  And due to the short distance between audience and cast, we’re privy to every nuance between Batt and Bailey, who are so beguiling in their roles, that their chemistry doesn’t just smoulder but ignites.
Ben Batt is every inch the beefcake farm labourer who only really comes alive when his friend is around.  In the presence of his sister and son-in-law and, more importantly Doreen (the equally impressive Katie West) who so obviously carries an enormous torch for him, he retreats into his shell, becoming laconic and brooding.  At the end of the play, his repressed agony at letting John go, is desperately moving. 

The equally well cast Jonathan Bailey, perfectly captures the rather more uptight townie, all oohs and aahs at the rustic charm of the cottage kitchen, especially the old-fashioned kitchen range.  All nervous laughter and ‘rabbit in the headlight’ stares, his timidity causes the two men to swap roles and allow George to take the ‘director’ mantle.

Whether or not George’s mother realises her son’s preference for men is never entirely sure, but Lesley Nicol infuses her character with warm, no nonsense Yorkshire charm.  Equally affecting are the remaining cast, Brian Fletcher as the impudent, head in the clouds nephew and Lucy Black playing George’s obviously unfulfilled married sister, Barbara, married to Matthew Wilson’s Arthur.

The play will soon be transferring to the Sheffield Crucible, where I’m sure it will get the appreciative Yorkshire audience it deserves.  Before it does, for ninety-five minutes, we southerners are transported to the hills and dales of their county in the most realistic way possible.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Long Days Journey Into Night at Wyndhams Theatre

One wonders if Eugene O’Neil would have written such wonderful plays if his childhood had been secure and happy.  Or, come to that, whether he would have written plays at all.  For he is a playwright whose works largely rely on the dysfunctional family dynamic; none more so than Long Day’s Journey Into Night currently at Wyndhams Theatre, the play which most closely illustrates his tortured upbringing. 

With a superb cast of five, Richard Eyre directs with great style and aplomb.  Leading the way is the incomparable Lesley Manville, so very fine in everything she does, especially when period angst is required.  Here she plays Mary Tyrone, wife of James and mother to James Tyrone Jr and Edmund.  Recently returned from a stint in a sanatorium, the family are celebrating the fact that this time she has returned stronger and more positive.  Or has she?  The excellent Jeremy Irons, playing cigar smoking, Shakespeare quoting husband James, continually mentions how plump and well she looks.  But there are tell-tale signs that this imperceptibly nervy woman has problems she is trying to hide.  From the constant touching of her hair to bursts of rapid dialogue (much of it “on repeat”) the “once an addict always an addict” rings true.  As the morphine once again takes hold, the tenuous struggle to appear normal fails and the forced happiness turns to nervous disappointment and eventual drug addled blankness.  There is no doubt that she is loved by James and her sons, exasperated as they are by her inability to kick her habit, but years of resentment at never being able to call anywhere home, the loss of their middle child and constant worry that Edmund has far more wrong with him than the mere cold she insists he has, have left her vulnerable to the numbing effects that morphine brings.

The words, “Mama is back on the morphine” is never actually spoken out loud, although we’re left in no doubt that the eldest son, James, never believes she can be cured.  Edmund and his father grasp at straws that this time the sanatorium has done a good job but they eventually have to admit the truth.  Jeremy Irons perfectly captures his character’s dismay at the knowledge that he has once more lost the love of his life to the insidious drug.  The accusing glance he gives her on realising she is sliding back into her old ways is both chilling and full of sorrow.

It’s not just Mary’s state of mind that is sliding.  The whole family is hurtling downhill and their unloved holiday house is full to the rafters in lost hope.  The men reach oblivion by drinking far too much, everyone picks holes in everyone else and the unhappiness that pervades this dysfunctional quartet is palpable.  And it’s not just this long day that brings forth such disappointment.  It has been brewing for some time.  Cheapskate James senior has a lifetime of regret that his acting career, although lucrative, was filled with mediocre work.  His eldest son’s self-loathing is never far from the surface, whilst Edmund (for his character read Eugene himself) retreats from his illness into the world of morbid poetry.  

And it’s not just Mary who exists within a bubble of emotional inconsistency.  It’s the family's default button. James senior, having decided that Edmund be assigned to a cheap state sanatorium, declares that, as money is no object, “within reason”, he will have the best treatment possible.  James junior praises his younger brother’s literary efforts in one breath and in another derides them.  For the Tyrone’s life is an allusion.

What is real is the fact that there is no weak link in this production of O’Neil’s autobiographical masterpiece. Manville and Irons have terrific support from Rory Keenan as the boisterous degenerate James and Matthew Beard as the romantically inclined Edmund, who looks so skinny and pale that it takes no leap of faith to believe he has TB.  The former fails to take on board anything anyone says, whilst Beard turns attentiveness into an art form.  Add the welcome touch of comedy from Jessica Regan’s Irish maid, and the three hours, twenty, whilst not actually flying by don’t drag for a minute.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Girls & Boys at The Royal Court

It’s quite something for a lone actor to hold an audience’s attention for a whole play and for a playwright to provide the material to make it work.  Girls & Boys, Dennis Kelly’s latest offering, now playing at The Royal Court ticks both boxes.

Carey Mulligan, barefoot and dressed in smart trousers and silk shirt, is a tour de force.  Affecting an estuary accent, she opens proceedings, almost in the guise of a ballsy, stand-up comedienne who uses her lifetime experiences as material.  Her dialogue throughout isn’t so much splattered as deluged with expletives as she treats us to a very witty, frank and rude account of her life thus far.  We lean forward, anxious not to miss one snippet from this superb story teller.  

Firstly, we learn how she met her husband in the queue to board an Easy Jet flight and took an instant dislike to the man.  Following the transformation from dislike to love and marriage, children Leanne and Danny arrive to make her life pretty near perfect, especially as her career trajectory has risen until she ends up a successful documentary maker.  In the meantime, her husband’s furniture importing business goes bust.  And this appears to be the catalyst for her cosy existence going belly up.   On arriving at the point where everything goes catastrophically wrong, the gleam in her eye fades, her upbeat façade crumbles and we long for her not to share with us the horrors she has had to endure.

Every so often Mulligan moves from downstage to Es Devlin’s magnificent set behind the curtain.  In the couple’s modern designer home, we are treated to Mulligan, the mother, going about the daily grind of trying to manage her two young, unseen children.  The whole set is shrouded in an icy blue light and thanks to the narrative and Lyndsey Turner’s subtle ratcheting up of the tension, we begin to realise that maybe something terrible has happened.

I’m not going to give the game away by letting you in on the plot.  Just suffice it to say that this play may be short in length but this doesn’t stop it hitting home with incredible and shocking force.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Lady Windermere's Fan at The Vaudeville Theatre

Following on from his tenure as Artistic Director at The Globe, Dominic Dromgoole has formed a new company.  Entitled Classic Spring, it is currently producing a season of Oscar Wilde’s plays at The Vaudeville Theatre, the second of which is Lady Windermere’s Fan.  For this show, this most enterprising of theatrical stalwarts has assembled a great mix of talent, from Kathy Burke as Director to Samantha Spiro and Jennifer Saunders as Mrs. Erlynne and the Duchess of Berwick respectively.  All three do not disappoint.

It is quite an undertaking to put on a Wilde play, which is probably why it rarely happens, but here it is done with aplomb.  Kathy Burke handles the large cast with ease and one of the several scene changes is accompanied by Saunder’s character moving slightly out of character to sing an hilarious ditty entitled “Keep your hands off my fan, sir!”.  Unmissable!

Wilde once again proves his empathy for the position of women in polite society where certain sacrifices have to be made.  The main character of the play, Mrs Erlynne highlights this.  This attractive, social climber, who to all intents and purposes has her claws well and truly embedded in Lord Windermere, is actually hiding her true raison de’etre.  And Samantha Spiro perfectly encapsulates both the “scarlet” and “maternal” aspects of a woman who is scorned by the likes of the Duchess of Berwick.  Never cloying when the true nature of her attempt to return to polite society is revealed, she also manages to imbue this so-called fallen woman with dignity and humour.

But I guess the evening ultimately belongs to the magnificent Jennifer Saunders.  Treading the boards for the first time in over twenty years, she is a joy as the blousy, bossy Duchess, bossing and flouncing to all and sundry, but especially her “little chatterbox” daughter who never gets a word in edgeways.  Always the gossip, Saunders relays everything that’s happening within her social circle (and plenty that isn’t) through scarcely parted lips and her bits of business with her walking cane are inspired.  Why speak when you can convey everything with a look and point of a stick?

Grace Molony as Lady Windermere equips herself very well.  She highlights the young woman’s youth and susceptibility very well and in so doing, squashes the girl’s priggishness.
Unfortunately, the men don’t fare quite so well.  ‘Tis true Wilde has given the best lines to the women but, even so, the males in the cast didn’t really inspire, especially Kevin Bishop as Lord Darlington.  I certainly couldn’t see any reason why Lady Windermere might risk all by running off with someone so lacking in charisma.  But no matter, I left the theatre with a smile on my face, having witnessed a couple of hours of delightful (and at times laugh out loud) entertainment.  A fan of Lady Windermere?  Most certainly.