Sandy Pritchard-Gordon

Sandy Pritchard-Gordon
Theatre Blog

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Travesties at The Menier Chocolate Factory

The choice for the first theatre visit after the summer hiatus was spot on.  The genius that is Tom Stoppard wrote Travesties in 1974 and this revival, directed by that other excellent playwright, Patrick Marber, is a humorous delight, with some dance and song thrown in for good measure.

Everything works in this production’s favour, which, of course, isn’t a coincidence.  Each individual member of the cast is excellent and work beautifully as an ensemble, the set by Tim Hatley is spot on, the direction perfect and the intimacy of The Menier Chocolate Factory a massive plus.

Tom Stoppard’s plays begin by bewildering the audience and Travesties is an excellent example.  In fact one is perplexed about many aspects of the plot right up until the end.   But because of the playwright’s intellect and beautiful use of language this is not a problem.  The play begins with a short prologue, when the main character, Henry Carr, is an old man. It then goes back to World War One when he first lived in Zurich.  In town at various times during this period are Lenin, James Joyce and the Dada-ist Tristan Tzara and the play proceeds to tie in all four men.  The character of Henry Carr is also based on a real person, although his recollections of his dealings with his more famous contemparies have altered somewhat in the intervening years.  One constant, however, is the fact that Carr was involved in James Joyce’s amateur production of The Importance of Being Ernest, by playing the part of Algernon.  Also true is the fact that Carr subsequently sued Joyce for the cost of a pair of trousers! Thus the play moves in and out of the dialogue and action of Wilde’s famous work and combines pastiche, political history, artistic argument, time shifts and, most importantly, reminiscences.

Stoppard’s genius with language is there for all to see in this rarely performed play.  An entire scene is enacted in limerick form, various exchanges take place in Russian, there is farce and nonsense aplenty and yet there is also emotional substance. No wonder that this extraordinary knight is revered.

Patrick Marber ensures that the pace never slackens, whilst the skill of each and every cast member makes certain that the audience, although possibly finding it difficult  to keep up at times, are always up for doing so.
Words cannot do full justice to everyone involved.  Whether Tom Hollander is Carr in his totteringly old age or as the dapper younger man, he is hilarious in delivery and physicality.  But this most likeable of actors is no one trick pony, switching to a palpable sadness when the mood of the play changes, albeit fleetingly.   Freddie Fox also shines as the flamboyantly, arrogant Tzara, whilst Peter McDonald’s Joyce is alternately moving and comic.

Clare Foster’s, Cecily and Amy Morgan’s Gwendolen (yes another allusion to Wilde) are brilliant, especially when they have a squabble a la tea party scene in “Ernest” which is sung as a “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean” duet.

I think what I’m trying to say is that Travesties is an absolute delight.  It would be a travesty to miss it.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Platonov & Ivanov at The Olivier

The Olivier is now housing the extremely successful run of Chekhov’s first three plays, which played at Chichester last autumn.  Comprising Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull, and using the same company of actors, they can be viewed all in one day or on separate occasions.  I opted for the latter.

The first play in the trilogy is Platonov, which is not only a tricky one to pronounce (it is accented on the second syllable) but is also a tricky one to categorise, probably due to the fact that Chekhov is thought to have written it whilst still a 20 year old medical student.  Luckily its original length of 7hrs has been reduced to a much more manageable 2hrs 40mins and David Hare’s new translation brings the play up there with the best of Chekhov’s work.

Platonov of the title, brilliantly brought to life by James McArdle (complete with his natural Scottish accent), is a feckless schoolmaster, undoubtedly in love with his long suffering wife, Sasha but unable to resist the attentions of the women with whom he comes in contact.  Dissolute he may be, but, thanks to McArdle’s bravura performance, Platonov’s charms are obvious.  On paper, this immoral, self-absorbed character should be completely charmless, but in this superb production we all succumb to his magnetism.

One of the many women eating out of the palm of his hand is Anna Petrovna (the excellent Nina Sosanya) a widow living on the large estate where everyone congregates.  As with much of Chekhov, money, or lack of it, dominates Anna’s existence, as does her infatuation with Platonov.  Her first problem means she needs the help of the local capitalists, whilst her love for the immoral school teacher, whilst not exactly unrequited, is mainly based on passion.

It often seems that Chekhov hasn’t got much time for the characters he invents and no more so than here.  The only truly good person is Sasha (Jade Williams) who, unlike everyone else, actually listens to what is being said and doesn’t have a selfish bone in her body.

Platonov is a mish mash of farce, drama, comedy and tragedy but here, thanks to David Hare’s interpretation, Jonathan Kent’s tight direction and the entire cast’s skill, it comes together as pure joy.

Ivanov at The Olivier

As with the previous play, the stage for Ivanov is set on a country estate, wonderfully realised by Set Designer Tom Pye.  Nina Sosanya plays yet another Anna Petrovna but this time her character has tuberculosis and is consequently unlikely to see old age.  One-sided relationships abound once again, for, whilst Anna adores her egotistical husband, Ivanov (Geoffrey Streatfield), he is unable to reciprocate, preferring instead the charms of Olivia Vinall’s Sasha. 

With Ivanov we have yet another tortured soul, but, unlike, Platonov, he is totally without humour.  The inhabitants of this play fall into two categories, drunken bores and angst ridden seekers of goodness knows what.   Actually, I will revise that, as a clutch of grotesques sporadically appear, who because of their lack of emotional integrity leave the audience completely uninterested in their fate. The exception to all this is Anna Petrovna, the “good” person in Chekhov’s second play.

Whilst there are amusing moments, mostly provided by Sasha’s parents Pavel Lebedev (Jonathan Coy) and his very comical greedy wife, Zinaida (Debra Gillett), the title character lacks the attraction and verve of Platonov, languishing as he does in frequent bouts of self-hate.  Whilst the latter’s charm redeems his bad behaviour somewhat, Ivanov’s self-absorbtion and self-pity doesn’t instill much sympathy, even though one realizes he is driven by shame.

I am yet to see Jonathan Kent’s take on The Seagull, although I do know the play.  Based on what I know and what I’ve seen at The Olivier so far, I realise that the common denominator with these three plays appears to be the irresponsible landowner who fails in his task of keeping the estate together, the rise of the middle classes, the appearance of a doctor and/or teacher and the idealistic youth put down by the unimaginative old skeptics. 

Oh, yes, and I mustn't forget the inevitable gunshot!  Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull, whilst similar in theme, can be categorized as farce, melodrama and finally, stark realism.  So far, I much prefer his first foray into farce but will have to wait until October before I can judge the latest take on his realistic third play.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Faith Healer at The Donmar

The Faith Healer, written in 1979 by the late, and sadly missed Brian Friel, is reprised at The Donmar under the expert guidance of Director Lyndsey Turner.  One of our most successful Irish playwrights has fashioned a story with no interaction between the three cast members.  Instead they remember what has happened over the years, sharing these memories in a series of monologues.  The only thing is that memories re-visited have a habit of becoming distorted, none more so than here.  Not only that but, as with human nature as a whole, each character has a different perspective and thereby a different take on reality and each other.  We, the audience, have our work cut out to distinguish the reality from the fake.  But then that is a conundrum presented to non-believers coming into contact with Frank, the itinerant Faith Healer of the title.

As soon as we enter the theatre, we get the feeling that what is to follow is shrouded in mystery and sadness, inhabiting a grey rather than sunny world.  This is due to Es Devlin’s clever design, for cascading down three sides of the Donmar stage is a sheet of shimmering water, both a moving stage curtain and metaphor for the cheerless venues in which Frank performs.

Stephen Dillane’s Frank Hardy, dressed in shabby overcoat and trousers just a tad too short, appears on stage at the beginning and the end of the evening. Charismatic, but with an underlying sadness, we consider his veracity.  Is he a charlatan?  At times, maybe, but we’re given to understand that his gift for healing is, at times, real enough, it just isn’t under his control.  Perhaps this is the point Friel is trying to make;  an artist’s life is unpredictable, not only in so far as the next job is concerned but also because he is always dependent on inspiration.   Very cleverly, he also uses love as the one cohesive element between the three characters.     

The first discrepancy comes at the beginning of Gina McKee’s monologue.  Playing Grace, the Faith Healer’s wife (or is it mistress?) she talks with an Irish accent, despite Frank’s assurance that she is a Yorkshire woman.  Unlike Frank’s static performance, Grace addresses us whilst folding washing in her run-down kitchen.  Depression envelops her like a cloud.

The third person’s viewpoint is delivered by Ron Cook’s Teddy, Frank’s manager, and is much more upbeat.  Continually getting up out of his chair to fetch another bottle of Pale Ale, Teddy’s reminiscences include tales about various vaudeville artists, including a performing whippet and various pigeons.  Because of the humour and bits of business, this monologue requires a little less attention from the audience, which is something of a relief.
In fact it is the matter of concentration with which I had a slight problem.  I can’t put the blame on the play, whose lyrical language is a delight, or the actors, all of whom are at the top of their game.  No, the fault I am sure is sitting side on to the stage.  The Donmar is a wonderful space and usually seat positions are not too much of a problem.  However this play, with its lack of interchange, requires a special type of focus that is more difficult to attain when the actors’ facial expressions are mostly hidden.

In an ideal world, I would very much like to see the production again but next time in a front row pew facing the stage.

Monday, 4 July 2016

The Deep Blue Sea at The Lyttleton

Helen McCrory has proved time and time again that she is a very accomplished actress who can tackle and succeed in playing tragedy, comedy and everything else in between.  In this production of Terence Rattigan’s best play, The Deep Blue Sea, she has again teamed up with Carrie Cracknell who directed her in the superb Medea at The National a couple of years ago and is, once again, perfection.

The play opens with Hester Collyer (Helen McCrory) lying stretched out in front of an unlit gas fire, her suicide attempt having failed because she has forgotten to put a shilling in the gas meter.  From this moment on, during the space of just one day, we discover the reason for her desire to end it all.

Set in London in 1952, this is a time when living with a man whilst not married was termed living in sin, homosexuality was illegal, as was suicide and England was coming to terms with the end of World War II.  Hester is deemed a “fallen woman” in that she is cohabiting with Freddie (Tom Burke), an ex RAF pilot, in a shabby room in a two-storey rooming house.  Freddie, we soon realise, is the love of Hester’s life and the reason she has left the security of a marriage to high court judge, William (Peter Sullivan).  Sadly for her, Freddie doesn’t, or at least can’t, fully reciprocate.  He does love her in his own way but it is not the all-consuming passionate devotion she feels for him.  It is tearing her in two.
It is testament to the desire she has to live her life with this younger man that she has risked everything for love and can’t return to her husband, despite his appeal for her to do so.  McCrory conveys this beautifully.  Whenever Freddie arrives back home, she sparkles and becomes whole, visibly shrinking when he leaves.  When the inevitable happens and he prepares to leave for good, her panic and desperation, rise to the surface, turning this sensuous woman into an hysteric.  Such is the power of McCrory’s performance that we palpably feel her despair, especially when we know that Hester is under no illusion that no amount of wheedling or clinging will make him stay.

Although it is McCrory who makes this production great, the other performances are good.  There is a genuine fondness and warmth in the exchanges between Hester and her husband, thanks in part to Peter Sullivan (a younger William than normal) delicately imbuing his character with a quiet intensity.  She returns to corporate wife mode in his company, playfully asking after various mutual acquaintances, but we know as he does that Hester will never return to the marital home.  Her passion for Freddie is out of control.  Thus we feel a sadness for William too.  

Tom Burke ensures that we understand Freddie is not a total rat.  We sense his inability to give himself up wholly to loving this woman has more than a lot to do with his war experiences.  Swaggering and insensitive he may be, but Freddie also exudes a sadness that cannot be assuaged.

Tom Scutt’s design inhabits the whole of the huge Lyttleton stage and its size only heightens Hester’s diminishing control.  Helen McCrory is tiny and, encased in her one room whilst the other inhabitants of the rooming house can be seen ghostlike going about their lives, emphasizes her vulnerability.  Not that she is overwhelmed by the massive dull aquamarine structure; I doubt this actress could be overwhelmed by anything.

Some of Rattigan’s own experiences are mirrored in this play, which, along with the performances in this production, ensure The Deep Blue Sea is the perfect vehicle for highlighting “the illogicality of passion”.  Not only that but it is incredibly moving.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Spoils at Trafalgar Studios

I hadn’t fully appreciated the wealth of talent that makes up the lanky frame of Jesse Eisenberg until watching him perform in his third play, The Spoils, at Trafalgar Studios.  Of course I’ve seen his acting abilities displayed in various movies, most famously, The Social Network, but he is even more accomplished on stage.  His latest manifestation is a dope-induced bundle of twitching energy, with a distinct lack of focus and an acerbic tongue.  Written partly as an indictment of the lazy non-directional offspring of wealthy parents, who have no need or desire to do a proper day’s work, Jesse Eisenberg’s Ben could be one-dimensional.  But so accomplished is this playwright’s dialogue and acting skills, that his character is so much more.  He may be loathsome on the page, but, in performance Ben illicits sympathy as much as dislike.

Actually each of the five characters is tightly drawn (no caricatures here) and brought realistically to life by Kunal Nayyar, Alfied Allen, Katie Brayben and Annapurna Sriram.  The quick, snappy dialogue Is realistic and, although the action only covers a few days of these young peoples’ lives, much is learned about them and what makes them tick.
Thanks to his wealthy father, Ben owns his own Manhattan apartment and shares it with Kalyan (Kunal Nayyar) a Nepalese business student who he subjects to much verbal aggression.   Kalyan, living rent-free with this would be documentary film maker, who in truth has been kicked out of film school and spends his days doing absolutely nothing apart from rolling joints, is the antithesis of Ben.  Sweet natured and hard working he has become Ben’s spiritual carer, constantly having to listen to his whiney meanderings.  But, unlike Ben, the “immigrant” is in a relationship.  The girl in question is a pushy medical student called Reshma (Annapurna Spiram) who doesn’t hide her dislike of her boyfriend’s landlord.  The status quo is compromised when Ben bumps into Ted (Alfie Allen), an elementary school acquaintance of his.  Now a Wall Street trader, Ted has become engaged to Sarah (Katie Brayben) on whom Ben had a crush when they were eight years old. 

Following an excruciatingly awkward dinner party, with Kalyan, Reshma and the two new found friends, we discover the extent of Ben’s arrested development and problems.  Engineering a meeting alone with Sarah, Ben cringingly re-lives in graphic detail a childhood sexual dream he had about her.  Cringeworthy in the extreme, this recollection makes the audience wince and laugh in equal measure.  Not the way to win the girl!  
Increasingly coming apart at the seams, Ben’s isolation intensifies and Eisenberg allows you to see the loneliness that underpins the constant jibing and jokes at everyone’s expense.  He is the ultimate social misfit for which one can almost feel sorry.

All five characters are well drawn and believable and, the contrast between each one, helps to highlight the ineptitude of the compelling Eisenberg.  All in all this character driven play with an ending that just manages to be unsentimental, is one I highly recommend.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Sunset at the Villa Thalia at The Dorfman

Sunset at the Villa Thalia is one of those plays that promises more than it delivers.  The playwright, Alexi Kaye Campbell, was brought up in Athens, the son of a Greek father and British mother, so has every justification to be concerned about Greece’s economic woes.  His new play, however, doesn’t examine this country’s present problems, but is set in 1967, opening on the day the right-wing military junta seized control and closing a couple of years after the transition to democracy.

The Villa of the title is a small white house in Skiathos currently being rented out by a young, rather ineffectual English writer, Theo (Sam Crane) and his self righteous wife Charlotte (Pippa Nixon). They become friendly with an American couple, Harvey (Ben Miles) and June (Elizabeth McGovern) who are visiting the island.  It turns out that Harvey is an extremely pushy CIA operative whilst June, a bit of an air head, is not as happy as she appears and is a little too fond of a drink. 

The English couple are persuaded by Harvey to purchase Villa Thalia from Stamatis (Christos Callow) and his daughter Maria (Glykeria Dimou).  Desperate for cash, the reluctant Maria is persuaded by her father and Harvey that selling the house is the correct decision and the sale goes ahead at way below the market price.  This decision is obviously the catalyst for the devastating consequences that the play’s synopsis talks about.  But it is devastation for the Greek couple rather than the main characters in the play.
Simon Godwin’s production is beautifully staged and well acted.  Ben Miles’s Harvey is suitably obnoxious as one of those cringey Americans who loves the sound of his own voice, whilst Elizabeth McGovern’s role as June is a huge improvement from her turn as Lady Cora.  Clad in a distinct blonde wig, she is the epitome of a dumb blonde, turning in a very amusing performance.

What I am unsure about is why Harvey is so desperate for Theo and Charlotte to buy the villa.  Is it because he has dastardly plans of which no good will come?   Apparently not, for we are persuaded to believe that he has a crush on them both, platonically speaking, of course!  Or maybe it is just a plot device to make the American the fall guy for all that’s gone wrong in Greece (and everywhere else come to that)?

Rather than being a politically daring production about how the Greeks have been and are being displaced in their own country, Sunset At The Villa Thalia appears to be more of a contrived morality tale about how the majority of us skew the truth to salve our conscience at the way we’ve managed to achieve what we want.

Thanks to Hildegard Bechtler, Sunset at The Villa Thalia is beautiful and evocative to look at with the smell of pine and taste of ouzo palpable, but this isn’t enough to elevate the play from anything more than lightweight.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

The Threepenny Opera at The Olivier

Musicals aren’t really my thing but one with Rory Kinnear in the cast changes all that.  Simon Stephen’s new version of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill ‘s The Threepenny Opera, based on John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera sees the great actor playing the leading role of Captain Mackheath, aka Mack the Knife or Mackie.

Full of bawdy humour and risqué language, Rufus Norris directs the large cast with aplomb and it is, for the most part, brilliantly entertaining.  Written as a political indictment on capitalism, this version of The Threepenny Opera doesn’t ram the politics down the throat, just highlights the lives lived by the irrepressible hoodlums who inhabit the less than salubrious areas of nineteen twenties London.

Mackheath, the anti-hero, is something of a ladies man as well as being a master criminal and violent leader of a gang of thieves.  Rory Kinnear isn’t the obvious choice for playing a villain who can get any woman he wants into bed, but he does fulfill the criteria laid down by Brecht who suggests that Mackheath should be a “short, stocky man of about 40”.  What Kinnear may lack in sexual magnetism, he more than makes up for in his acting and vocal ability and is the perfect unemotional psychopath.

There are plenty more noteworthy cast members, not least Nick Holder’s corrupt Peachum, another member of London’s criminal fraternity who runs the city’s beggars.  Horrified on discovering that the sinister Macheath has married his daughter, Polly, he is determined to wreak revenge.  The rotund and dandyish Holder is dressed as a grotesque, complete with heels and black wig, whilst his wife, Celia, a deliciously over the top Haydn Gwynne, is clad head to toe in a clingy red dress, the perfect vamp.  The vocals from Rosalie Craig as the sharp-witted and canny Polly, Debbie Kurup’s Lucy Brown, Polly’s main rival for Mackie’s affections and Sharon Small’s drug addicted prostitute, Jenny Diver are all spot on. 
Vicky Mortimer has designed a set within a set, comprising flimsy movable screens and scaffolding, easily demolished and depicting the insecure lives these poor unfortunates are forced to endure.  Their existence is neither cheery nor sunny.

That’s not to say that The Threepenny Opera is all doom and gloom.  There are many laughs in this vulgar satire that cocks a snook at various modern social ills, and the casting of the disabled and speech-impaired actor Jamie Beddard as Matthias, aka The Shadow is inspired. 

Whilst there were a couple of moments during Act I when I doubted my attention could be held for the entire play, Act II more than lived up to expectations.  Rufus Norris is onto a winner with this unusual and exuberant musical that mixes cabaret with jazz and delights and shocks in equal measure.  And let’s not forget Musical Director David Shrubsole, whose use of an eight-piece band, in action on stage rather than an orchestra pit ensures that the songs propel the action perfectly.