Wednesday, 14 February 2018
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.
Monday, 29 January 2018
In Robert Icke’s adaptation of Schiller’s Mary Stuart at The Duke of York’s Theatre, Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth 1 are interchangeable – literally – because Juliette Stevenson and Lia Williams know both parts. The decision as to what part they will play on any particular night is down to the toss of a coin at the beginning of the production, the result of which is portrayed in close-up via a video screen. Clever or gimmicky? Definitely the latter, because it ultimately highlights that destiny can change in the blink of an eye and that the two women are arguably two sides of the same coin. One Catholic, the other Protestant but when it boils down, both imprisoned by the circumstances of their birth. Just a cruel twist of fate enabled one to become the first famous English monarch and the other to suffer at the hands of an executioner.
On the night I saw this excellent production, it was down to Juliet Stevenson to portray the doomed Mary. Because each actor had their own separate rehearsals, each one portrays each character differently, whether in mannerism or bits of business. The one abiding similarity is their look. Hildegard Bechtler has dressed both actresses in matching velvet trouser suits and white shirts, which, along with their short hair likens them to identical twins. They even appear to walk as one when approaching the stage on either side at the start, before facing one another as if looking into a mirror.
This arresting production started life at The Almeida at the back end of 2016, so Stevenson and Williams have had plenty of time to inhabit both roles. This they do with aplomb. The play itself centres around an imaginary meeting between the two women. One showing an uneasy command as a reigning monarch, the other with the unerring composure of a blue-blooded would-be queen eventually accepting what fate has in store. Whether or not this fate is the worst outcome is questioned at the end of the play when Elizabeth is stripped of her androgynous garb and laced into the trappings of period costume, along with ruff, wig and make-up. Exhibited thus, she is ready for the rest of her life to be played out in private isolation and public scrutiny, whilst Mary, stripped down to simple shift, is finally on her way to lasting contentment. She, the Scottish queen with a heart, will no longer have to deal with worldly problems and woes. This is all played out to the background melancholy refrain of a song by Laura Marling, so bravo to her and Paul Arditti, the Sound Designer.
As expected, there is much political argument within the play, but Director, Icke, after the initial solemn coin tossing, makes sure the action ratchets up a notch or three, with both actresses often encircling each other as predator after its kill. Their declamations have the light and shade needed to hold the audience in their thrall and although everyone is aware of the outcome, Mary Stuart’s death is still a body blow.
My only wish is to see these two brilliant actresses inhabit the other role
Thursday, 11 January 2018
James Norton is becoming the go-to actor for portraying outwardly normal, caring guys who have hidden depths. As Zack in Amy Herzog’s play, Belleville, currently playing at The Donmar, he once again brings this skill to the fore.
Zack, a doctor, is newly married to Abby (Imogen Poots). They have decamped from America to Paris, where he has a job doing research to prevent children contracting Aids and she, once a promising actor, is now teaching yoga. So far so good, but scratch the surface and hidden imperfections appear. The possible frailty of their relationship is hinted at almost from the start when Abby, returning from a cancelled yoga class (no-one turned up) discovers Zack furtively holed up in the bedroom with his computer. It’s not just that he should be at work, but that his laptop is tuned into a porn channel. And it seems that it’s not just their marriage which might crack at the seams, for underneath her bubbly exterior, Abby is mentally fragile. Having recently lost her mother, she is now obsessed with ringing home, day and night, to discuss her sister’s pregnancy with her father; a source of irritation for Zack, who finally hides her mobile phone. This aura of uneasiness ratchets up as the play progresses and the couple discover things about one another with which they find it difficult to cope.
The flat they rent belongs to Alioune (Malachi Kirby) and his wife, Amina (Faith Alabi), a Senegalese-French couple who live downstairs. He and Zack often share a spliff together when their respective wives aren’t around. Although the two men seem to have a friendly relationship, the same cannot really be said for Abby and Amina, the latter not bothering to hide her disapproval of the two Americans. Another disquieting aspect of the couple’s ex pat life in Paris.
It is as much to do with the skill of the cast as with Herzog’s script that the cracks which are continually revealed are realistic and subtle. A flaw in Zack is highlighted when he strongly disapproves of Abby wearing a sexy see-through blouse to go on a night out with their landlords. The reason? She last wore it when they went out with her ex-boyfriend. Ha, ha, could this seemingly placid and caring husband, actually have a jealous and manipulative streak? And does Abby actually enjoy goading him? Is their relationship toxic or are they desperately in love with one another? The way Director, Michael Longhurst steers the production ensures that the accumulation of Zack and Abby’s passive aggregations towards one another, although shocking, is believable and somewhat surprising.
Although the play belongs in the main to the magnificent James Norton and the equally accomplished Miss Poots, there is also excellent support from Malachi Kirby and Faith Alabi. The straight through hour and forty minutes fly by and I dare anyone to slacken their concentration at all during this time. Some may quibble that it is too melodramatic but not me!
Tuesday, 28 November 2017
Bryan Cranston has gone from Breaking Bad to Breaking Mad in Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s movie, Network, now showing at The Lyttleton Theatre. Except that Cranston brings an integrity to his troubled newsreader, Howard Beale, that shows that even during his rages, we’re witnessing someone who is perfectly sane rather than deranged. For his frequent anguished cry of “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more”, read “angry as hell”. Cranston’s nuanced performance ensures that his seventies prophet (the movie was made in 1976 and remains in this era here) has the audience in his thrall from the start.
Lee Hall’s adaptation of this Oscar winning satire is pretty much true to the original, apart from the toning down of the terrorist subplot and the affair between Beale’s colleague, Max Schumacher (Douglas Henshall) and the overly ambitious TV executive Diana Christensen (Michelle Dockery). He has made Beale the total focus and with such a strong actor in the title role, this is no bad thing at all. News anchor-man, Beale, a coiled spring, thanks to falling ratings and his own inner turmoil, finally breaks on air. Looking straight to camera, he announces that everything is “bullshit” and that he plans to kill himself live on air, in a week’s time.
It seems the viewing public love nothing more than a disaster happening on live TV, so that, combined with the collective view that something is rotten within the heart of America (no change there then) ensures that falling ratings start to rise. The suicide doesn’t happen; instead Beale’s popularity reaches epic proportions, which the News Network exploit to the full. They see a way to revive their flagging programme; why not make news more show bizzy even if it is at the expense of one man’s near descent into a nervous breakdown.
Ivo van Hove directs with his usual panache and uses his “techy” skills to accomplished effect in this production. The huge Lyttleton stage is transformed into a hyperactive TV studio complete with huge backstage screen that at times shows multiple videos at once (slightly distracting until one gets used to it, but then I guess that’s the idea). Cranston and various other members of the cast are often shown on screen as if we’re viewing them on television. Up close and personal, the craggy, slightly battered image of this great American actor leaves us in no doubt that he is perfect in the role, perfect even before he opens his mouth! Slightly strangely, situated stage left are several theatregoers enjoying dinner (all included in their ticket prices). I say strangely but actually it works, giving as it does, a visible audience to whom Cranston can direct many of his speeches.
Choreographing this “mayhem” on stage must have been a logistical headache, but it works like clockwork, even on a preview night when I went. The only sticking point for me is that I couldn’t quite believe in Michelle Dochery’s character, Diana. She shows perfectly well that this is one very pushy, ambitious young woman, but it is all so one dimensional and the real-time filmed walk outside between her and Max feels gimmicky and artificial. Let’s hope it has improved now previews are over.
This, however, is a minor fault which is more than overshadowed by the overall production and in particular, Bryan Cranston’s masterclass performance. Please don’t let it be too long before he returns to the London stage; I will be first in the booking queue.
Tuesday, 21 November 2017
If you go to Young Marx expecting the laugh bombardment you got at One Man Two Guvnors, you could be disappointed. But go with an open mind and the realisation is that Richard Bean and Clive Coleman have crafted a play with very witty and clever dialogue that provides, if not belly laughs, then certainly entertainment.
This being the first production at a brand-new London theatre situated south of the river, it would be remiss of me not to air my thoughts and I have to say that I have no reservations whatsoever. The Bridge Theatre (the love child of Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr) is a triumph. Its situation, river side and overlooking Tower Bridge is perfect and, as is to be expected from two theatrical stalwarts, its flexible configuration is not only excellent, but aesthetically pleasing. Plus, and it’s a big plus, there are many more female loos than we women are used to in a theatre - hurrah! Oh, and I must not forget to mention the leather trimmed seats, which are comfy and provide masses of leg room. We theatre goers visiting this big, bright space are definitely travelling first class rather than economy. Let’s hope and pray that the unsubsidised The London Theatre Company (the theatre’s resident company) manage to realise all their plans to open more theatres and transfer productions far and wide.
Nick Hytner directs Young Marx and has assembled a great cast led by Rory Kinnear, Oliver Chris and Nancy Carroll. The play is a farce set in Soho in 1850 highlighting the shenanigans of the young, newly arrived refugee, Karl Marx (Kinnear) who is a bit of a lad, to put it mildly. Work shy and prone to boozing far too much, Marx leads his long- suffering wife, Jenny (Carroll), a not so merry dance. There is no doubt that he loves her and adores his sickly young son, Guido and musical daughter, Jenny Caroline but this doesn’t stop him straying into the arms of the family’s maid, Helene (Laura Elphinstone). Marx’s side-kick and “brother-in-arms” is the wealthy and, it has to be said, lascivious Friedrich Engels (Oliver Chris) who is often called upon to bail out his cash stricken, co-author of the Communist Manifesto.
However, the main visitors to the Marx’s family hovel are the peelers or bailiffs, who at one point strip the sitting room/kitchen almost bare. Not that Marx is always privy to their visits, hiding as he often does in the cupboard for fear that he might be marched off to the local nick. Mark Thompson’s revolving set evokes the grittiness of this Dean Street dwelling, both inside and out and I love the way the set allows the actors to chase each other over the rooftops.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Rory Kinnear give an undiminished performance and the same is true here. His bearded, grubby Marx, who suffers from boils on his bottom, is forever in the zone, whether he be casually lambasting Jenny with verbal cruelty, getting into a punch up in the British Library, chatting up Helene or boisterously playing with his children. He is also able to depict Marx’s many contradictions with ease. He may be a political visionary but is also a blatant scrounger who is constantly daydreaming and trying to hide his self-doubt. Oliver Chris is equally affecting and, along with Kinnear, brings to life the two men’s friendship, whether it be as one half of a Victorian Flanders & Swan double act, or the permanent human cash point machine. He is a more sympathetic character than Marx but with no hint of saccharine. Everyone else in the case provides top notch support, especially Nancy Carroll and Laura Elphinstone.
The play isn’t overly concerned with portraying Marx’s obviously brilliant mind, concentrating instead on trying to demystify him. We are given a hint that he was a brilliant analyst in a powerful scene that allows Kinnear to momentarily take a breather from all his toing and froing, but this is not the main thrust of the play. We just have to believe what Engels says, “You’re an alpha, a bona fide genius, you prick!” All I can say is that what Young Marx does do is humanise the man in a very humorous way.
Friday, 3 November 2017
It‘s such a treat to be privy to a new play that is more than worth the ticket price. Beginning, now playing at The Dorfman, is one such production. Written by David Eldridge, Beginning is a two-hander charting the possible start of a new relationship. Whilst the majority of friendships/’sexships’ nowadays begin on-line, what happens when two mid-lifers are faced with getting to know one another face to face?
Set in Managing Director Laura’s new Crouch End flat, where she has been holding a party to celebrate her new acquisition, everyone has gone home apart from East Ender Danny. The couple haven’t met before and who knows if they will ever meet again.
Our first glimpse of Danny is his back view and we’re immediately aware of his discomfort, which is enhanced as soon as he turns round. This action is a taster of Polly Findlay’s exquisite direction. She, with the help of Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton ensure that this funny, touching and droll insight into the loneliness often felt by today’s singletons caught up in dating apps and phony postings on social media, delights from start to finish.
Justine Mitchell’s Laura initially seems to be the one who is more in control and it’s credit to her brilliant portrayal that, despite the outward appearances, we soon become aware that she has as many hang-ups as Sam Troughton’s Danny. Being successful at work, with enough income to own her own property doesn’t guarantee that her weekends aren’t spent alone. Danny, too, isn’t happy. Divorced and separated from his seven-year-old daughter, who he hasn’t seen since she was three, he has been forced to move back home to his mum and nan. He has been desperately hurt and is guarded about committing to any type of relationship, especially the one on Laura’s agenda. His initial laddish behaviour hides a sincere and gentle man, anxious not to make the same mistake twice.
The two of them spend the one hour and forty minutes running time getting to know one another. There are glaring gaffes, truthful admissions and the hint of a mutual attraction, and Findlay has no fear in allowing prolonged awkward silences whilst the couple take on board what’s been said. Initially any attempt by Laura to get physically closer to Danny is met with evasive and delaying tactics. One particularly amusing attempt at keeping the predatory Laura at bay is for him to suggest a preliminary flat clean up. She watches in disbelief as he shakes out a bin bag and proceeds to fill it with the party detritus, whilst periodically placing yet another empty beer bottle neatly on a shelf. Later on, when his nervousness is beginning to ebb, the two start to dance, until Danny, gradually digesting what Laura is suggesting, comes to a near stand-still. Nothing is said and doesn’t need to be; the unintended metaphoric slap in the face for Laura and her plan is painfully obvious.
There isn’t a dud note in the whole production. Designer Fly Davis realistically portrays the after party scene of empty bottles, Pringle packets and drooping streamers. In fact realism and truth is the name of the game, from David Eldrige’s pitch perfect dialogue, Polly Findlay’s expert choreography and Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton’s immersion into Laura and Danny.
From Beginning to end, this play is an absolute joy.
Tuesday, 24 October 2017
One of my early thoughts watching Wings by Arthur Kopit now playing at The Young Vic, was how on earth has Juliet Stevenson managed not to throw up? For she spends most of the seventy minutes running time strapped into a harness, swooping, diving and somersaulting in a manner that would give the Red Devils a run for their money. Stevenson’s last encounter with the Director, Natalie Abrahami, had the actress buried up to her neck in earth in Beckett’s Happy Days. Just a passing thought, but perhaps she should think twice about the content of the next production on which the pair collaborate?
Juliet Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, who at seventy years old has developed a neurological disorder called Aphasia. In her earlier years Emily was an aviator and wing walker and the rising and falling action caused by the harness not only mimics the way her mind is now forced to work but is also a harking back to her happy times in the air.
The designer, Michael Levine, has devised a long, raised platform that is able to move across the stage, onto which the airborne Stevenson gently drops from time to time. It is also where we view her, seated reading on a chair as the play opens and where the various members of the company playing doctors, nurses and therapists periodically appear.
Dialogue is sparse and when uttered by Stevenson often makes no sense; the poor woman knows what she wants to say but her condition renders her incapable of forming her thoughts into coherent words. Arthur Kopit’s father was also imprisoned within his own head by a stroke and whilst he was undergoing therapy, Kopit came across a former aviatrix whose brain had crashed. Thus Wings, written in 1978 is largely based on these experiences.
Unlike many forms of neurological complaints, Aphasia can improve and, thanks to the care and dedication of the professionals assigned to help her, Emily’s speech gradually returns. Juliet Stevenson must be thrilled when she can, at last, perform in an upright position.
Anyone who has had the misfortune to watch someone they know and love in the throes of a neurological condition may find, if not solace, at least some understanding as to what the illness can mean to the patient. Wings, whilst not exactly a bundle of laughs is a fascinating insight into this too prevalent condition. Juliet Stevenson is her usual excellent self and it is seventy minutes of unusual and thought-provoking theatre.