Sandy Pritchard-Gordon

Sandy Pritchard-Gordon
Theatre Blog

Monday, 15 May 2017

Consent at The Dorfman

Nina Raine not only wrote Consent, now running at The National’s Dorfman Theatre, but her young baby also features, albeit for just a short while during the opening scene.  This inclusion adds to the believability of the couple at the heart of her new play.  The baby in question belongs to Kitty (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Edward (Ben Chaplin), who, on the surface appear to be in a happy ten-year-old marriage.  They have just moved into a new home and their great friends, Rachel (Priyanga Burford) and Jake (Adam James) have called round to “wet the house’s head”.  Edward and Jake are lawyers and constantly recall present and past cases in graphic detail, referring to their clients in the first person.  The playwright has obviously studied the way barristers chat to one another, as well as meticulously researching all aspects of the legal system.  Without it there wouldn’t be the ring of truth surrounding Consent.

Edward's latest case is defending a man convicted of raping Gayle, a young working class woman (Heather Craney), whilst Tim (Pip Carter) has the job of prosecuting him.  Gayle is having problems understanding why no one is defending her.  Even when Tim explains that she isn’t the one being tried, the legalities of the whole judicial system go completely over her head.  All she knows is that she was raped on the day her younger sister was buried.  The fact that she was drunk and undergoing therapy fails to make her understand that her rape assertions have holes.  Certain things about the legal eagles do become clear to her once the case is over.  On gate crashing a Christmas party, she sees the lawyers for what they really are.  Not the men with the moral high ground in court, but dope smoking, champagne-quaffing mates who don’t give their cases, win or lose, a second thought.  It’s only following her explanation as to why she needed therapy, that she glimpses some flicker of remorse.  Heather Craney imbues this account with such credibility that the whole episode is incredibly moving.

The final character is Kitty’s best friend Zara (Daisy Haggard) an actress who would like nothing more than to be in a happy relationship.  In order to do something about this, Kitty decides it would be wonderful if Zara and Tim could become an item. Unfortunately in the creative world of Nina Raine, life is never that simple.  Even though the emotive crime of rape is at the heart of Consent, the title doesn’t just allude to agreeing to have sex.  It also incorporates what you consent to within a marriage.  Adultery rears its ugly head more than once in this production and Raine explores how different people react to this form of betrayal.

The entire cast are exemplary.  Ben Chaplin has exactly the right air of self-righteous smugness at the start, when everything appears to be going his way.  Then when his marriage falls apart, the man who appears to have allowed the professional callousness required for his job as a defence lawyer to have invaded his personal life, totally breaks down.  Kitty’s complaint that he is totally lacking in emotion finally proves unfounded.  Her decision to try and make him understand the devastating effect of a loved one embarking on an affair, by doing the self same thing with Tim, has succeeded.  Anna Maxwell-Martin is in her usual tip-top form, concealing her long held bitterness behind a veneer of nervy cheeriness.  They make a most plausible couple and one wills them to put the past behind them at the end of the play.

Adam James and Priyanga Burford also succeed in convincing us that they are a fully rounded couple, even though their relationship is less detailed.  Daisy Haggard is instantly recognisable as a Bridget Jones type whose biological clock is ticking away madly, whilst Pip Carter, the perpetual batchelor is superb. 

All in all Nina Raine has done it again.  She has devised an amusing, non-judgemental insight into the legal profession and shone the spotlight on young, professional relationships.  Having Director Roger Michell at the helm is no bad thing either, for he ensures the acting matches the strength of the zippy writing.  Thoroughly recommended.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Obsession at The Barbican

Following Ivo van Hove’s brilliant productions of A View From The Bridge and Hedda Gabler, his latest offering starring Jude Law and members of the Belgian’s Toneelgroep Company, seemed like a no brainer.  Conceived and directed by van Hove, in an English Language version by Simon Stephens, Obsession is based on Luchino Visconti’s 1943 movie of the same name, which, in turn, was based on the novel The Postman Always Rings Twice.

It centres around Gino (Jude Law), a handsome drifter, who on meeting Hanna (Halina Reijn) for the first time falls head over heels in love/lust or perhaps both.  The only problem is that she is unhappily married to Joseph (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) a not altogether pleasant older man.  She, too, is obsessed with Gino, although her idea of the perfect life is very much at odds with her free spirited lover.  Needless to say, this all-consuming love affair ends in tragedy for all concerned.

We are warned of scenes of a sexual nature and, sure enough, when the couple indulge in a spot of heaving rumpy pumpy, we are privy to a close-up of the action via large video screens.  No need for a warning, though, for it is tastefully, if rather clinically done; so carefully choreographed that any emotion is sadly lacking.  Even the almost constant musical score, making up for the lack of dialogue, fails to produce any atmosphere.
Ivo van Hove and his designer, Jan Versweyveld, have stripped the whole production down so that it is far removed from reality.  A car engine suspended from the ceiling suggests the garage attached to where Joseph and Hanna live and the vast Barbican stage contains nothing else apart from a water tank, wooden bar and perspex windowed doors.  Oh and this excuse for a car, also has another purpose, in that black sump oil pours from its bowels during the bloody murder scene.  Dripping in this treacly mess, the couple strip off and wash themselves in the water tank; silently. When the couple run away together, they do so via a treadmill, which elicited giggles from some of the audience on the night I went.   

Obsession, the film, was shot in Italy’s long, winding roads and countryside, but there is no sense of place in this adaptation, the only reference to Italy being snatches of the Italian Opera, La Traviata.  I have to say, there is also no sense of real passion.  Whereas van Hove’s A View From the Bridge and Hedda Gabler worked so well under his non-realistic approach, Obsession fails.  It is sterile and cold and I for one was completely uninvolved.
Part of the problem is the theatre itself.  The Barbican, with it’s huge stage is rather sterile, even more so when it is almost completely bare.  Since watching the play, I have seen the South Bank Show covering the rehearsal period, interviews with Law and van Hove and the play’s first foray onto the stage.  This, for me, was so much more involving and I wonder how much better the production would have been in a smaller space, like say the Donmar.

At least the strapping, sexy and soulful Jude Law shines, even though the rest of the company hardly glimmer. He also manages to inject some feeling into the sparse rather flat dialogue.  But, unfortunately, even he looks rather lost in this huge barren space.  I wonder if he was as pleased as me when the 1 hour, 50 minutes were up?

Obviously I won’t give up on Ivo van Hove.  A director who is so radically different and believes that realism in the theatre is a misnomer is bound to have his off moments.  But from his take on Arthur Miller’s play being one of the best productions of 2014, this one could possibly be one the worst of 2017.

Monday, 8 May 2017

The Ferryman at The Royal Court

This is the reason I’m a member of so many of our great London theatres.  I get to be one of the first to make sure I get to see those plays that cause a flurry of excitement as soon as they are announced.  Jezz Butterworth’s epic new work, The Ferryman, is one such play.  Sold out in one day at the Royal Court and with tickets for its transfer to The Gielgud already sparse (and that’s before Press Night in the Sloane Square venue) anticipation at being privy to seeing the possible successor to Jerusalem, has been immense.  And those of us lucky enough to watched it already can attest that we have viewed something very special indeed.

Jezz Butterworth has once more tuned into countryside rituals (Jerusalem) and gangland bureaucracy (Mojo) but on top of this he has now tackled the huge issue that was Northern Ireland in 1981.  Ten republican prisoners have died from hunger strike in the Maze prison and it is no surprise that the IRA feature strongly in The Ferryman.  Except for a brief prologue, the play is set in a farm in County Armagh, designed by Rob Howell, who has left no stone unturned in creating the Carney’s realistic overcrowded farmhouse kitchen.  The house is inhabited by several generations of the Carney family and it’s the time of year when they and their extended family celebrate the annual harvest.  However, two incidents imbue this year’s festivities with a sinister element.  The body of Quinn Carney’s (Paddy Consadine) brother, Seamus, has been found face down in a bog, and this in turn elicits a visit by a leading republican.  We discover that Quinn defected from the IRA just before Seamus went missing; it’s all too obvious that one’s past can never be totally erased.  Butterworth equally demonstrates that the power of love (especially the forbidden and, in this case, hidden kind), can never truly stay in the shadows.  From the all consuming and tender relationship between Quinn and his brother’s wife, Caitlin (the astonishing Laura Donnelly) to the two elderly sisters who both still mourn their loved ones, love is the heart and soul of this magnificent play.

As with Jerusalem, The Ferryman merges the otherworldly with meticulous realism.  Aunt Maggie far away (Brid Brennan), in her rare moments of lucidity, entrances the children with her magical reminiscences, whilst the sole Englishman, Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson) produces a live baby bunny and goose and there is also a live baby on stage.  All of which helps ensure that we, the audience, are as one, silent and transfixed as the story enfolds.

It takes a director of Sam Mendes stature to be able to choreograph a cast of 21, plus baby on the relatively small Royal Court stage.  The action unfurls as naturally as this ensemble of actors inhabit their roles.  And his attention to detail is unrivalled.  Genevieve O’Reilly as Quinn’s sickly wife, Mary, doesn’t need to voice her hurt that she knows she has a rival for her husband’s affections.  A quiet turn of her head so as not to watch Caitlin taking charge of her kitchen is enough. Mendes also manages to change the atmosphere in the blink of an eye.  From the sexual frisson when we first see Quinn and Caitlin dancing together to the tension and then fear when leading Republican Muldoon (Stuart Graham) issues his demands.

All the characters, thanks to the brilliance of the cast, are fully formed and real.  No caricatures here.  Paddy Consadine, in his first stage role (who would believe it) has a commanding stillness, speaking each line as if it’s the first time it’s been uttered.  Laura Donelly is equally fine.  Their love for each other is so heartbreakingly real that the very air between them seems to crackle.  Dearbhla Molloy imbues the irascible Aunt Pat with an acerbic wit and profound passion for the Republican cause, whilst relative newcomer, Tom Glynn-Carney, is remarkable as Shane Corcoran, whose inability to keep quiet will get him into deep trouble with Muldoon.

As you can probably gather, I can’t rate The Ferryman highly enough.  Jezz Butterworth who has named his play after Charon, the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead, has done it again.  And despite the running time of 3hrs 20mins, or maybe because of it, I have booked to see it again in the West End.  If you want to see a gem, hurry up and book too, before it’s too late.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui at The Donmar

The Donmar has been transformed into a dimly lit Chicago Speakeasy designed by Peter McKintosh, for Bertolt Brecht’s parable on the rise of fascism led by Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.  In this new adaptation by the American Bruce Norris, there is no hiding the fact that The Donald has rather taken over the Hitler analogy, despite the assertion by the Announcer that “any suggestion of a correlation between the leader of a certain nation and the homicidal gangsters we depict is something that the management must strictly disavow”.  When said scripted disclaimer is then wiped on the announcer’s backside, we know where the evening is going.  There is no subtlety whatsoever in making sure we don’t forget the parallels with today as the script is littered with Trump references, including “I’m gonna make this country great again”.

Ui of the title, who obviously stands in for Hitler, starts the play as a shambling small time hoodlum, whose callous manipulation of the Chicago cauliflower protection racket, enables him to rise to city boss.  Once in this exalted position, he is on the lookout for yet more territories to dominate. Likewise Dogsborough, a corrupt city hall boss represents President Hindenburg.

Michael Pennington plays Dogsborough with just the right mix of venality and vulnerability, whilst the rest of the cast equip themselves well, whether as one character or several. Tom Edden as Announcer/Ragg/Sheet/Actor/Butler and Grocer is particularly fine.
All of which brings me to the subject of Lenny Henry, the erstwhile stand-up comedian, turned classical actor, whose Ui, whilst not necessarily chilling, is a powerful presence.  Not a small man by any means, Henry does manage to portray Ui as a moody, lolloping dolt at the beginning, before transforming him into a force to be reckoned with once he’s got a taste for power. 

Unfortunately, the excellent metamorphosis from theatre to club is rather at the expense of comfort, so well done one theatre goer for bringing her own cushion (insider knowledge?).  Mind you her “ringside” position, one of the wooden chairs surrounding various circular tables, did entail her rather prolonged participation as a defendant in the trial scene.  Whilst audience participation can be effective, the less is more rule doesn’t apply here I’m afraid.

Despite the heavy-handed approach to various themes present in Brecht’s 1941 play, there is much to recommend this production.  Thanks to Simon Evan’s excellent direction, it is pacey and funny, whilst a dangling mic is often put to good use, especially when various members of the cast burst into short snippets of popular songs. Rag ‘N Bone Man’s ‘I’m Only Human’ sung superbly by Gloria Obianyo, being one of them.

It’s a fun evening, which for me was spoilt by Lenny Henry (seemingly out of character) indulging in some political lobbying at the end …. Unnecessary!

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The Goat (or Who Is Sylvia?) at Theatre Royal, Haymarket

The last couple of plays I’ve seen have been concerned with marital conflict and Edward Albee wrote them both.  Ah, ah, I thought, a playwright whose marriage/s have been tricky to say the least.  How wrong of me, because, of course, Edward Albee, who died last year, was gay, so bang goes that theory!  And, after all, marriage is just a by-product of what Albee is trying to portray, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf centres around what isn’t said, whilst The Goat concerns transgression against sexual norms.  Furthermore they are both about secrets.  With The Goat, Albee certainly pushes his ideas further than many playwrights would dare.

Martin (Damian Lewis) is married to Stevie (Sophie Okonedo) and they have one adolescent gay son, Billy (Archie Madekwe).  The couple josh and joke and come across as devoted and happily married.  But Martin has a secret and, although there is a clue in the son’s moniker, we’re not aware as to what this secret is, until he spills the beans to his friend, Ross (Jason Hughes).  And it is quite some secret …… for Martin has fallen in love with a goat, the Sylvia of the title, whom he met whilst searching for a country retreat for himself and his family.  This is some mid-life crisis for the soon to be 50 award-winning architect, who has become edgy and forgetful, but refuses to acknowledge that his actions are in any way wrong.  Martin’s wife, son and friend may be appalled at the thought that he has resorted to screwing livestock, but all he knows is that he has fallen in love, spiritually and physically.

When the play opens to show Rae Smith’s stylish bare-brick walled drawing room, Damien Lewis is incredibly awkward and ill at ease.  He expertly convinces that there is so much on his mind that he is unable to concentrate or focus on anything.  It is only when he has unburdened his secret that he loosens up and, calmly and reasonably explains his feelings.  What he has been doing for the past six months is not wrong in his eyes and in no way diminishes his love for his wife. 

Understandably this cuts no ice with the horrified Stevie, and Sophie Okonedo is compellingly convincing as she tries to come to terms with what is happening.  We feel her pain, betrayal and shock and her prolonged howl of  despair at one one point is almost too much to bear.  There is humour, too, thanks to the fact that the couple are still concerned with each other’s linguistic precision even when various priceless objets d’art are hurled this way and that by the anguished Stevie.

The impressive Archie Madekwe is making his stage debut as the bewildered Billy and handles probably the most difficult scene in the play with a maturity that belies his lack of experience.  Jason Hughes as Martin’s moralistic school friend, Ross, is equally effective, as is Ian Rickson’s spot-on direction.

Are we less shocked towards the end of the one-and-three quarter hours than we were at the beginning?   Has Albee made us reconsider the relationship between love and sexual desire and the boundaries of tolerance that is acceptable?  After all, Martin, finds it very difficult to resist calling his son a faggot.  Is this prejudice any better or worse than that against Martin’s love affair with a goat?  We can pontificate all we like but the fact is that this production of The Goat, thanks to the expert cast and direction, is great and well worth seeing.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf at The Harold Pinter Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Hamlet at The Almeida

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

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

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

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

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