Sandy Pritchard-Gordon

Sandy Pritchard-Gordon
Theatre Blog

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Nice Fish at The Harold Pinter Theatre

Mark Rylance spent his childhood years in the States, part of them beside the crumbling shores of Lake Michigan.  With his play Nice Fish, which he wrote with the collaboration of poet Louis Jenkins, he is revisiting this experience by setting it on one of the frozen lakes of Wisconsin.  He is obviously very taken with Jenkins’ poems, who also spent his informative years living beside one of these dark, deep waters, and this surreal and whimsical production is based around them.  First aired in America it has now transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre, luckily giving us another chance to see one of, if not the greatest stage actors of our time.

The long, hard winter is coming to a close and Ron (Rylance) and Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) are two friends taking time out together fishing on the ice.  Erik is a seasoned fisherman, Ron not so much.  They spend their time, Godot- like, ruminating on life, love and the landscape, all the while dealing with whatever weather this part of the world can throw at them. The two men are consumate actors and the scene where they battle with a particularly fearsome gale, makes the audience sit tighter in their seats to prevent being blown away!   Despite being very different in character (Erik has a serious air and tends to worry, whilst Ron, the eternal optimist, likes to clown around) the two men kind of get along!  Louis Jenkins’ humerous and atomospheric poems pepper the dialogue and the skill and physicality of the cast ensure this strange play is thought provoking, funny and endearing. 
A few other characters join them on the ice at various times throughout the play.  Their first visitor is a bumptious official from the Department of Natural Resources (Bob Davis), quickly followed by a fairy-like female called Flo (Kayli Carter) and her spear fishing grandfather Wayne (Raye Birk).  A couple of tiny puppets also pepper the upstage icy wasteland, which, along with the distant minute trees help to highlight the vastness of the environment in which the play is set.

Todd Rosenthal has covered the entire stage in white polystyrene, which does such a good job of giving the appearance of snow covered ice, that one can quite understand why Ron is encased in a bright orange parka with matching salopettes and ear flap hat.  The cold is so palpable that when Flo arrives dressed in non cold weather gear, the main thought is, “I bet she’s freezing!”. 

Claire Van Kampen, directs with a lightness of touch and elicits the very best performances from the cast, especially the playwright himself.  But then she is Mrs. Rylance, so no surprise there.  Not that I think her husband can ever deliver a bad performance.  He has the audience in the palm of his hand from the word go and laughter abounds even when the absurdity of the piece is at its zenith and his wrestle with a tent is a joy to behold.  We soon begin to realise that the abrupt blackouts that occur throughout the 1hr 40mins are actually one of the least strange things taking place.  Can anyone explain the appearance of a palm tree festooned with fairy lights?  No?  Does it matter? Not one bit.  After all, Mark Rylance himself states that he doesn’t really know what the play is about and will be making sense of it, word by word, as are we the audience.

All I do know is that Nice Fish is a theatrical recipe that includes mysticism, surrealism, absurdity and a dollop of truth.  The humour of Spike Milligan and Monty Python springs to mind and that’s no bad thing at all, especially with a cast and creative team all pulling together to provide a joyous evening of theatre.

Monday, 21 November 2016

King Lear at The Old Vic

Well one thing’s for certain, Glenda Jackson certainly has balls.  To make a come back to the theatrical stage from the one in Westminster, is a brave feat for any actor, let alone one who is eighty years young.  That the role in question is the mighty King Lear adds to this lady’s pluck.  And it’s not just pluck, because on stage at The Old Vic she also proves that she is still the fine actress she was twenty-five years ago. But the main question is, will she go down as one of the great Lears?  Probably not, but to be fair, this is actually more down to Deborah Warner’s production rather than Ms Jackson’s performance.

The director has set the play in a modern day rehearsal room with a minimalist set designed by herself and Jean Kalman that comprises a succession of white cubes and squares.  The lighting is stark and plain and does nothing to hide the gaunt features of this octogenarian female Lear.  Jackson is allowed no vanity, for we witness every line and sinew, especially when, at full throttle, she brings out the king’s malice and desire for revenge.  Her recognizable, rasping voice is undiminished and that she is a woman playing a man (she hasn’t been re-named Queen Lear) is not an issue.  No, the issue, for me, is that I was strangely unmoved by the whole thing.

The production lacks atmosphere, apart from the magnificent storm scene, realised with billowing black plastic and lightening streaks of silver light.  There are also a few unnecessary distractions.  Not only are we “treated” to a lingering full frontal Edgar (Harry Melling), but his sibling, Edmund (Simon Manyonda) bares his buttocks following a skipping-rope work-out.  All very fine (their bodies aren’t unpleasing to the eye) but one gets the feeling the director feels the need to shock.  That we are also treated to not one but two characters tossing themselves off and one of Gloucester’s eyeballs is lobbed into the audience, is, I feel several gimmicks too far. 

Some of the remaining performances are also a bit hit and miss.  Jane Horrocks is a dominatrix type Regan, clad in spindly stilettos and tight black jeans, but, peculiarly her and be-suited Celia Imrie as Goneril are somewhat underpowered.  This is a particular shame for me, as their inclusion, alongside Jackson and Rhys Ifans were a factor in my booking tickets.  Mind you, Rhys Ifans’s Fool does not disappoint.   Resplendent in Superman costume, he brings a welcome warmth to the Old Vic stage and is undeniably funny.  Also worthy of a mention are Morfydd Clark as a quietly effective Cordelia and Sargon Yelda as Kent.  They bring clarity to the text, unlike Harry Melling and Simon Manyonda, who whether through overexertion or distraction from dangling private parts tend to lose or throw away key speeches.

Despite the negatives, seeing Glenda Jackson on stage once more, doing what she does best, is well worth the ticket price.

Monday, 14 November 2016

One Night In Miami at The Donmar

Hurrah, at last we have a production under the “new” regime at The Donmar worthy of a standing ovation. Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, who has been working as Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage, One Night In Miami by Kent Powers is superb.  Kwami is also responsible for directing One Love, the Bob Marley Musical, soon to be put on at Birmingham Rep Theatre following its stint in Baltimore.  If this production is anything to go by, One Love will be a must see.

The play is set in a motel room in Miami on 25th February 1964, the night when Cassius Clay becomes the new world heavyweight champion following his defeat over Sonny Liston.  He celebrates the win by sharing this sparse space with three friends, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm Little (aka Malcolm X).  All famous in their own right; Brown, arguably the best ever American Footballer; Sam Cook a very successful soul singer and Malcolm X a Civil Rights Activist, they gather together to discuss their standing as black men in 1960’s America.

As well as sharing the same skin colour, these four men are all on the cusp of change.  Brown wants to become a movie star; Cooke is debating whether or not to change his musical direction from popular ballads to more political, gospel driven songs; Clay is about to change his name to Muhammad Ali and become a committed Muslim; whilst Malcolm X is soon to leave the Nation of Islam.  Amongst the four, it is Malcolm X who strikes a discordant note.  He constantly goads the singer about his choice of material, even illustrating his point by playing the Bob Dylan song, Blowing In The Wind.  If a white man can write and sing such a powerful protest song, what’s a black singer doing singing smoochy love songs?

There isn’t a lot of action taking place on stage, but there is an underlying feeling of violence, particularly from the two “bodyguards” Kareem (Dwane Walcott) and Jamaal (Josh Williams), when you begin to sense that Malcolm X isn’t safe in the hands of his Muslim brothers.

The acting from everyone is exemplary, but Arinze Kene’s Sam Cooke is especially affecting, especially when he recreates moments from his concerts.  It is spine tingling stuff and he has a superb voice to match his effortless portrayal of the unpredictable but charismatic “Mr Soul”.  Cassius Clay is brought to bouncing “fly like a butterfly” life by Sope Dirisu, full of self belief and fervour at his decision to join the Muslim faith.  The one man who tries to keep the peace whilst Malcolm X tries to undermine it, is David Ajala’s character, Jim Brown, a big pleasant bear of a man.  There is only one American actor in the cast and that is Francoise Battiste, who totally captures the restrained anger rumbling beneath the surface of the devout and immaculately turned out Malcolm X.

So, not only is One Night In Miami beautifully realised but it is also extremely relevant to what is happening in America right now.  To emphasise the point, we see footage of Black Lives Matter demos at the end of the play.  Nothing has changed in that black people are still the real victims, but at least here at The Donmar in 2016 we are treated to a brilliant all black production that has practically everyone up on their feet at the end. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

No Man's Land at Wyndhams Theatre

What a treat to see two theatrical knights effortlessly (or so it seems) give it their all in Harold Pinter’s infuriating but excellent 1975 play, No Mans Land.  Of course Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart do not disappoint and neither do the remaining two members of the cast, Owen Teale and Damien Molony.  A brilliant cast of four, performing in a play by a brilliant playwright; what could be better?  As it happens not much, because this production at Wyndhams Theatre is a delight from start to finish. 

Nothing much happens in No Man’s Land, although there is a continuous atmosphere of “Pinter” unease throughout.  Will something nasty happen or not?  Stephen Brimson Lewis’s exquisite set sets the scene from the start.  Before lights up, we view a gloomy night-time copse, which soon gives way to a smart library belonging to successful literary figure, Hirst (Patrick Stewart).  He has brought Spooner (McKellen) a failed poet, back to his house for a late night glass of malt whisky, or should I say glasses, following their meeting in a North London pub.  The two men’s outward appearance couldn’t be more different.  Hirst oozes wealth in his beautifully tailored pinstripe suit and bow tie, whilst Spooner’s cheap suit is crumpled and he exudes more than a whiff of seediness.  Whilst Hirst assumes an air of quiet superiority, the loquacious Spooner attempts to ingratiate himself with his host.  What follows is a conversation between the two men, the content of which may or may not be true (but probably isn’t). On the arrival of Briggs (Owen Teale) some kind of major-domo to Hirst and Foster (Damien Molony), who may or may not be his son (but probably isn’t), their menacing air towards the interloper, racks up the tension.  Is their resentment towards him anything to do with their sexual proclivity?  The following morning, after Spooner has spent the night locked in the room, the two older men continue their bewildering exchange, with Hirst now appearing to remember Spooner from his past (or does he?).  Confusing?  Yes, very. Although it could all be the result of one or other, or both of the older men suffering from some kind of dementia, no-one really knows. This is Pinter land at it’s confusing best.

Sean Mathias’s tight production enables these two elderly actors to prove that they are far from being past their prime, even managing to ensure that McKellen resists any desire to overact.  There is a wonderful moment when Spooner’s pursed lips (the result of Hirst admitting that he slept with his wife) speak volumes.  In addition the two younger men more than hold their own in such esteemed company and play the Kray like heavies to perfection.

The two hours fly by.  I can’t pretend to understand the play, but what I do know is that those two hours are an absolute joy.  It is an enormous privilege to watch two superlative actors reprise their double handed sparring match following Waiting for Godot in 2009.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were to ever happen again?

Friday, 4 November 2016

The Red Barn at The Lyttleton

The Red Barn is termed a psychological thriller and whilst Le Main, the novel by Georges Simenon on which it is based is just that, this new play by David Hare somehow doesn’t quite cut the mustard.   The opening sequence of four people battling their way in a snowstorm promises much.  There’s a sense of impending doom and Tom Gibbons use of sound along with Paule Constable’s lighting, adds to the feeling of something ‘nasty in the woodshed’.  Trouble is, the denouement, which should be shocking, feels underpowered.

Le Main itself is set in the first person, so the reader is immediately able to get into the head of main character Donald Dodd.  Despite all the best intentions and skill of the playwright, designer and cast, that viewpoint is difficult to realise here.  No-one is be more able to achieve the inner turmoil than the always excellent Mark Strong, but even with him in the lead role, the edge of the seat stuff is absent.  Instead we get a beautifully styled and well performed production, but not one that does what it says on the tin.

Donald Dodd is married, but not happily, to Ingrid, a rather cold fish, who sees everything but says nothing.  In a series of cleverly portrayed flashbacks we ascertain that the pair of them are playing host to Donald’s old friend, Ray and his new young wife, Mona and that the foursome have spent the evening at a party.  During this party, we are witness to the fact that Ray is prone to “putting it about a bit”, the recent receiver of his sexual shenanigans being the wife of the host.  She is a willing participant, even managing a self satisfied smile when Donald comes across the two of them going at it hammer and tongs in a cloakroom, whilst rich hubby is in a nearby room.  Poor old Donald.  It’s apparent that sex, even with his wife, let alone anyone else, doesn’t feature large in his life.  Is his obvious envy at his friend’s accomplishments enough to commit a crime?

It is the journey home, when the two couples have to ditch the car and traipse through a blizzard, losing Ray in the process, that we assume the thriller aspect of the piece is being realised.  Except that this isn’t a whodunit at all.  The clues are there; a huge image of the iris of an eye at the beginning, Ingrid’s constant scrutiny of her husband and eyes featuring in the final few moments.  This is a play about what people see or don’t see, perceive or chose not to.  Fine enough in itself, but disappointing if you’ve taken at face value that The Red Barn is meant to be a psychological thriller.  It wasn’t until reading Le Main after seeing the play, that I realised this terminology, certainly as far as the book is concerned, is correct.  So why doesn’t it work here at The Lyttleton, when all the correct pieces are there and put into place by the hot young director Robert Icke?

I think the mistake is that it has been made into a play at all.  It would work so much better as a movie.  In fact, the way Bunny Christie has designed The  Red Barn, by making the surrounding black panels contract and expand so our eyes are focused on a central image, is very much like a cinema screen.  A very clever concept, that helps the continual shift in location and portrays the opening snow sequence brilliantly. 

Alongside Mark Strong are Hope Davis as his wife, Ingrid, Nigel Whitmey playing Ray and Elizabeth Debicki portraying Mona.  Accomplished actors as they are, by the end of the play I had lost all interest as to what would become of any of them.

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.