The hype surrounding Audra McDonald is totally justified if her first foray into London’s theatre land is anything to go by, because, to all intents and purposes, she is Billie Holiday. Not only does she have a voice to die for and one that brings the late great singer back to life, but she perfects Holiday’s ability to perform whilst high on alcohol and or drugs. Not an easy task.
Billie Holiday’s life was
always a struggle, whilst death came early at the age of 44 due to heart and
liver failure. Growing up in Baltimore,
Maryland, she was the daughter of teenage mother, Sadie and jazz musician,
Clarence, who disappeared off the scene when Billie was very young. Sadie often left her daughter in the care of
abusive relatives and by the time she was 9 years old Billie was sent to a
school for troubled African American girls.
Returned to her mother (who was then working in a Harlem brothel) a year
later, Billie was sexually assaulted.
Not an auspicious beginning and she fared no better in later years when
her first husband, James Monroe, introduced her to opium. Bearing in mind that she was already heavily
dependent on alcohol, the relationship floundered, resulting in her meeting
trumpeter, Joe Guy. He, in turn
introduced her to heroin and the death of her mother soon after, ensured that
her addictions escalated.
By the mid 1950’s, when
this play is set, Billie, or Lady Day (the nickname bestowed on her in 1937)
was reduced to singing in dives like Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Following a stint in prison and arrest for
narcotics possession, the singer had been refused a work permit to perform in
any place that served alcoholic drinks, prohibiting her appearances in
nightclubs and jazz clubs. This particular
performance in 1959 was to be one of her last, as she died a few months later.
Not surprisingly, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,
is a painful reminder of the toll the singer’s addiction had on her body and
mind. Reminiscing on her life between
songs, we get a glimpse of what she has had to endure and the sadness at what
her life has become. There is light
heartedness, especially during the performance we saw, when her beloved
Chihuahua, Pepi, having licked her face (seemingly on “cue”) suddenly yelps,
having got its paw caught in Audra’s ring.
Not remotely amusing as far as the dog is concerned, but a little light
relief from the sadness for the audience.
Don’t get me wrong, this
production isn’t a dirge; far from it. It’s
an opportunity to watch an extraordinary talent up close and personal, whilst
enjoying expert musicians plying their craft. Billie’s relationship with her
pianist and musical director (Shelton
Bacton) is a treat. Always on the
alert as to the state of mind and inebriation of his singer, Bacton tries to
second-guess her every move and the rapport between them is an unforced treat.
The brilliant Christopher Oram has also done a
wonderful job in transforming the front few rows of Wyndhams Theatre into a 1950’s American “dive” bar. Circular tables and chairs replace front row
seats, whilst the stage accommodates audience members seated at tables as well
as the three musicians and Audra. Seated
at Table 4, we were treated to the singer approaching us for a cigarette. One member of our party had the honour of
lighting said ciggie, which I know added to his enjoyment of an evening
watching the reincarnation of the troubled but superb Billie Holiday aka Audra
Sunday, 9 July 2017
Conor McPherson is one of my favourite playwrights and he doesn’t disappoint with his first foray into the realms of musical theatre. Girl From the North Country (a song off Bob Dylan’s 1963 album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) had it’s first preview last night and is an absolute joy.
As the playwright states in the programme “this new musical is not a greatest hits compilation or a classic West End blockbuster where the songs drive the plot. It’s a conversation between the songs and the story” …. a big plus in my view. Rather than having the cast sing to one another, they do so to the audience using old-fashioned stand microphones, and each of them plays a performer broadcasting the story, as well as the character within it. The only instruments used are those that existed in the 1930’s and several of the cast members aid the musicians on stage with a spot of drumming.
Set in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth Minnesota during the Depression of the early 1930’s, the action takes place in a guesthouse owned by Nick (Ciaran Hinds) and his wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson). It is left to Nick to run the place, because Elizabeth has dementia, whilst their son, Gene (Sam Reid) is a drunk with delusions of being a writer. Their adopted black daughter, Marianne (Sheila Atim) helps, but being pregnant and without a partner, Nick is desperate for her to have the stability of having a ring on her finger. The guests themselves include a widow with whom Nick is involved, a couple with a son who has mental problems, a bible salesman and a black boxer. Add to this broad mix of society, the local doctor (Ron Cook) who narrates the story, an eclectic mix of Dylan’s songs, sung to perfection, plus the brilliance of McPherson’s story telling and the result is a great evening’s entertainment.
It’s great to see McPherson’s frequent collaborators, Ciaran Hinds, Ron Cook, Jim Norton and Stanley Townsend on the Old Vic stage, whilst the newcomers are equally as good. Those cast members who sing (the majority I might add) all bring something utterly new to Dylan’s songs. It’s as if we’re hearing them for the first time and they all highlight the songwriter’s brilliance.
It’s almost unfair to single out a cast member as they’re all so good. Ciaran Hinds is his usual superb self, whilst Shirley Henderson, exquisitely captures the unique liberation that dementia can bring. She has no “off” button and her antics lighten the mood to some of the sadder aspects of the story. The singing of all is also exemplary. Each performer has a totally unique voice (no standard musical theatre singers here) and when, as often happens, they are joined by some of the other cast, it all blends in so perfectly. One particularly strong voice is that of the brilliant Arinze Kene (so, so good in the recent One Night In Miami at The Donmar) who plays the boxer. And Sheila Atim’s voice sends the spine tingling.
How wise of Artistic Director, Matthew Warchus to insist that McPherson direct his own play. He doesn’t hit a bum note, just like the musicians and singers and if the first night in front of a paying audience is this good, I can only urge people to go and buy a ticket for future ones.
Just for the record, the singer, Lulu, sat behind us last night and obviously enjoyed it as much as we did, for she quietly sang along to most of the numbers.
Sunday, 11 June 2017
Oh dear, Anne-Marie Duff does her level best, but even she can’t transform D.C. Moore’s overly ambitious play into an engaging piece of theatre. The central subject of land enclosure during the 18th and 19th centuries, at a time when the common people of England were very much entrenched in the mystical and spiritual world, is a promising theme. Unfortunately the playwright’s decision to include an adjective laden and extremely confusing language, defeats the commendable subject matter and, for that matter, the listener. No amount of ominous drumming, blood and guts and heavy (and I do mean heavy) doses of swearing can relieve the tedium and bewilderment as to what is actually happening and why.
The first few minutes are promising enough. The huge Olivier stage is transformed into a bleak wasteland, whilst the large cast, encased in animal masks and the like, trudge in single file upstage, silhouetted against an uncompromising skyline. Drumbeats accompany them and the menacing air continues as the peasants form a circle and their ‘leader’, wearing, what looks like a wicker waste paper basket on his head, sets fire to some fencing. We are intrigued, but it’s short lived, because the lights then go up, Anne-Marie Duff’s Mary, dressed in scarlet gown and tricorn hat enters the stage and talks to the audience. Our first introduction to Moore’s over-ripe and under clear language and the beginning of the play’s rapid descent.
Although much of Mary’s dialogue is indecipherable, we do learn that she has returned to her home village (presumably in Norfolk as Norwich is mentioned later but, as everyone’s dialect is different, this is just a guess) from London, where she worked as a prostitute. She informs us that she is a female rogue who has conned a London aristocrat and has come back home in order to collect her female lover, Laura (an underused Cush Jumbo) so they can run away together. Laura is living with her brother, King (John Dagleish) who has problems reconciling himself to the fact that she is his sister. Has an incestuous relationship taken place? Like so much in this play, we’re not sure, but he has definitely sold Laura the story that he thrashed Mary senseless and watched her drown, which is why she suddenly disappeared. Actually Mary has a habit of raising herself from the dead but that’s another bewildering plotline. As is the question as to whether this ‘whore, liar, thief’ actually wants to do good by halting the enclosing of the land or do bad by siding with those who want progress.
Common was originally scheduled to last just over three hours, so the fact that it now runs for just two hours, twenty must hint that the rehearsal room was perturbed that all was not going well. It is billed as dark and funny. Dark certainly; there is a disembowelling, Wicker Man-type pagan rituals, syphilis, and shootings a plenty, including that of Eggy Tom (an excellent Lois Chimimba), a young boy who owns a talking crow. Funny? Well the talking crow is quite amusing.
Jeremy Herrin, the director, previously gave us the wonderful People, Places & Things, and Wolf Hall, amongst others, so that coupled with the casting of Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo, means that Common promises much. Sadly it doesn’t deliver. It’s a no from me I’m afraid.
Tuesday, 30 May 2017
Three curtain calls and the entire Lyttleton Theatre audience on their feet, highlights that the two ticket only policy for Angels In America is entirely justified. Let’s hope that Part Two, Perestroika, which I’ve booked to see in August is as good.
Tony Kushner’s epic play (event even) was first staged at The National in 1993. Set in New York during the Reagan years, 1985 to be exact, Angels in America is funny, sad and thought provoking, all wrapped up as a theatrical extravaganza. It is termed “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” and was written when Aids was the huge elephant in the room. It features Prior Walter who has succumbed to this scourge of gay men. Unfortunately his male partner, Louis Ironson, can’t cope and does a runner. Meanwhile a young Mormon, Joseph Pitt, can’t face the fact that he prefers men and, as a result, his unhappy wife, Harper, pops pills - lots of them. And then there’s Roy M Cohn, not a figment of the playwright’s imagination, but Donald Trump’s legal adviser back in the day. A very important “legal eagle” Cohn denies his homosexuality and the fact that he has Aids.
That is the bare bones of the play, which, in theory, is easy enough to condense into a few lines, but in practice is much more complex. Thankfully, under Marianne Elliott’s expert guidance, any long rambling speeches are crystal clear and she ensures there is always something to assault the senses; incredibly important seeing as how Part One runs for 3 ½ hours. The lonely and often illusory city life, is embodied within Ian MacNeil’s staging of the play. Little scenarios are performed within isolated boxes, whilst the discontinuous scenes mark the fractured society of Reagan’s second term of office.
Although the play features more than thirty characters, various members of the cast take on several parts and six further actors are employed as Angel Shadows. Because, of course, the Angel of the title is actually a physical part of the action, appearing as she does to Prior towards the end of Millennium Approaches. “Very Steven Spielberg”, comments Prior on her spectacular entrance and how right he is, even though this spiritual being, played by the excellent Amanda Lawrence, is rather more comical in appearance than celestial.
The cast is faultless. Andrew Garfield more than lives up to expectations as the flamboyant, if intense Prior Walter. The camp affectations of fluttering hands and elongated neck, give way to howling despair on realising the lesions on his skin are portents of what will eventually befall him. He is funny, pathetic and, ultimately, pitiable. His erstwhile, garrulous boyfriend, is brilliantly bought to life by James McArdle, whose long, rambling, political and guilt ridden speeches, rather than amusing, would be painful in less capable hands. Denise Gough, so good at portraying a troubled soul in People, Places and Things, is equally fine here as is Russell Tovey her soul searching husband. Another great performance is given by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, the ex drag queen, turned nurse who takes care of Prior. His nurse is the embodiment of gentleness and practicality that one would expect, whilst he perfects the art of providing just the right amount of undercutting cynicism as Belize.
Which brings me to the Tony Award winning Nathan Lane, as Roy M Cohn. He changes from soft-spoken seemingly tame pussycat to ferocious lion in a heartbeat and is extremely funny, even when sick to the core with Aids (or liver cancer as he would have it). He is the epitome of a great American stage actor.
Add to all this the excellent Susan Brown, who amongst others plays Hannah, Joe’s conservative Mormon mother and Amanda Lawrence’s various guises and the whole is an epic delight. Huge, but strangely intimate and immensely entertaining.
Monday, 15 May 2017
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
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
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.