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March 13, 2012

The House of Bernarda Alba, Almeida Theatre

3 stars

I would say that it’s quite unusual for a play to be transferred to an entirely new context and to work almost as well as its original. However, this is the case with Bijan Sheibani’s ingenious setting of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba at the Almeida Theatre in which mid-twentieth century Andalusia becomes rural twenty-first century Iran. With few changes in the new translation by Emily Mann, aside from the character names that have morphed from Spanish to being in the territory of Farsi, it seems to do so almost effortlessly.

We practically feel the heat and we see the cultural oppression – not just in the mourning outfits that the Alba daughters are wearing, but also in the way that a knock on the front door prompts the women to all cover their heads before they answer it. This even extends to Bernarda Alba, the tyrannical matriarch, who Lorca presents as demanding absolute authority over her household. A clever twist in Sheibani’s production is that even she must obey the strict codes of cultural conduct and it is only in her home that she is in control.

Shohreh Aghdashloo stars as the tyrannical matriarch, who is insisting that her grown-up daughters obey the period of mourning for their late father, by staying inside for eight years. With only the eldest daughter, Asieh (a superb Pandora Colin) being engaged to a man – ultimately because of her money and in spite of her unfortunate appearance – the rest of the daughters pine for love and sexual fulfilment.

Aghdashloo brings to the role a statuesque poise and an unwavering detachment from the other characters and her daughters. When shocking news is broken to her, or gossip shared, there is something blasé in her reaction that makes Bernarda all the more frightening. She barely blinks as a young woman is tormented in the street for abandoning her fatherless baby. She cracks a vague smile when she hears about a village woman who has been abducted and raped by the local men. Rather than a tyrant continually feeling the need to reinforce her hold on the family and situation through aggressive gestures and tirades, this Bernarda seems supremely confident that nothing could shake her authority within the household.

At times, Aghdashloo’s presence feels a little too much on the relaxed side and she perhaps could have benefitted from slightly more variation in her acting. And it’s a flaw of the production that, in spite of the context and the set-up being optimum, you never truly see the family reach a boiling point. Tensions bob to the surface, but then disperse, and you never fully see the extent to which sexual frustration and jealousy drives the daughters to behave like enraged caged animals. Combined with the fact that some of Lorca’s poetic writing inevitably can’t be conveyed so successfully in translation, the piece at times feels rather prosaic and ticks along at points like they’re all waiting for Godot.

I am pleased to see this powerful play being revived in such an imaginative way and, ratcheted up a few notches, it would be an even more disturbing and electrifying piece of theatre.


March 12, 2012

Les Miserables, HMP Erlestoke, Pimlico Opera

Les Mis

5 stars

(Image: right) Cast members meet Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, on her visit to the show

It seems that Pimlico Opera’s productions are truly going from strength to strength. 2012’s project is a production of Les Miserables in HMP Erlestoke, a Category C prison, housing just under 500 convicted male adult prisoners. Once again, this production was conceived by Wasfi Kani, and falls under the expert direction of Michael Moody and musical direction of Toby Purser. It’s a shining example of true integration between the professional and prisoner casts.

This is partly a feature of Moody’s brilliant vision, but also owes itself to the (mostly previously untapped) natural talent of so many of the inmate performers. Most notable perhaps is MARIUS, who describes himself in the programme as “a cheeky chap from Peckham”, and has a beautifully pure singing voice, and an earnest, intense stage presence, which makes him ideal for the role. His voice blends perfectly with COSETTE’s in their duets, and he has such a confident grasp of the often challenging music that you marvel at the fact that he is not a professional.

Also worthy of a special mention in the principal roles is RAM-trained Anthony Flaum as JEAN VALJEAN, who in many ways seems born to play this part despite his young years; Grange Park regular Caryl Hughes as a sweetly voiced and poised Cosette; and THERNARDIER, the seedy innkeeper who, in this version, is a dry East Ender on the fiddle, bedecked in gold chains and a gaudy leopard-print coat by the end. His cool rendering of ‘Master of the House’, which at the end evolves into the Maccerena, leaves the audience shouting for more. THERNARDIER, incidentally, claims to have signed up to the project on the understanding that he was to be a stage hand, and had never before seen or heard an opera.

But to single out principals doesn’t do justice to the spirit of this production where talent and commitment run right through the ranks, in keeping with the message of the show. Moody has clearly got to know his company thoroughly because he has cast exceptionally to their strengths. GAVROCHE, for instance, is excellent, making up for his small stature in heaps of attitude and charm; ENJOLRAS is stirring as the motivated leader of the revolution; and there are some stunning vocals from two very talented signers, LEON and GRANTAIRE, in ‘Drink With Me’ – here ingeniously re-imagined as a campfire song and hauntingly accompanied by a guitar, making it one of the highlights of the night.

They say a show is as good as its weakest chorus member, and the chorus here are difficult to fault. Ensemble numbers are tightly choreographed and executed, the singing is impassioned, and individual characters are given a prominence and distinctive identity, which can so often be missed in professional productions, which tend to present the chorus simply as a depersonalised ‘mob’. From the chapel to the brothel to the barricades, you watch relationships and events unfold on so many levels, and you witness new characters and new talent rise to the surface at different points in this committed and versatile ensemble.

The quality of the on-stage performances is enhanced further by a great band, a dramatic and sombre set with a bridge that’s used to great dramatic effect, and some striking stage effects, including swivelling lights, which, at the end, rotate from focusing on the cast to illuminating the audience. It seems to represent the importance of the audience and supporters of Pimlico Opera, which is entirely funded by individuals and charities, receiving no government funding. One cast member comments about his involvement in the show: “I am really enjoying it. Now I feel a different person and very normal.” It’s our responsibility to ensure this opportunity is given to more people in his position over the coming years.

To support and find out more about Pimlico Opera’s work, visit: http://www.grangeparkopera.co.uk/about-us/pimlico-opera/support-pimlico-opera-in-prison

Singin' in the Rain, Palace Theatre

3 stars

Chichester Festival Theatre seems to be on a roll at the moment with glowing reviews and a plethora of London transfers. It is a credit to their Artistic Director, Jonathan Church, that this regional theatre is now in such a healthy state when many are struggling to pull in the audiences that are needed to keep the businesses afloat.

And it’s not hard to see why this production of Singin’ in the Rain has been hailed as such an unqualified triumph. Not only is its arrival timely with the Oscar-soaked film The Artist, which takes as its theme silent movies versus the Talkies, but it stays close to its screen buddy by not fully recognising itself as a stage show. It does exactly what the 1952 film of Singin’ in the Rain did, but cleverly makes it a bit more modern by being a little more in-yer-face. And, in many ways, it needs to because – in spite of some cracking numbers – the show, for want of a better word, can at times be a little bit wet.

Adam Cooper is undeniably a joy to watch as Don Lockwood, the famous silent movie star, and his classical ballet training brings a strength, grace and control to his dance sequences that (dare I say it) surpass even the sprightly Gene Kelly. The rain is funny, the front rows get very wet, and the classic numbers (‘Make ‘Em Laugh’, ‘Moses Supposes’ and ‘Good Morning’) are all very enjoyable.

But, that said, the production suffers from two things. Firstly, from its relative lack of imagination and reluctance to depart from what the film did so well. (I was alarmed that even potentially inoffensive departures hadn’t been embraced, such as the decision to make Lina Lamont’s voice coach a clone of the film’s, or not to have Lina be a fiery redhead, for instance, rather than the same peroxide blonde that we saw in the movie.) Because the production hasn’t carved out its own dramatic identity, replicas of sequences we know from the film can only really be inferior: real-life Cosmo sadly can’t run up the walls and ceiling, so he has to topple through a paper wall instead; the live ‘fit as a fiddle’ boy violinists by definition have to be a little less agile on the stage and so the virtuosic gymnastics never happen; and the rain, by nature, has to be operated by a machine, caught in a trough, and then drained out and mopped up.

Secondly, I felt that some of the show’s charm is cancelled out here by a tendency for over-acting. Lina Lamont (Katherine Kingsley)’s dialogue is often very drawn out and her voice doesn’t seem genetically bad enough to make it funny. Cathy Seldon (Scarlett Strallen) ups her game to keep up with her exaggerated fellow-principal to become rather shrill and neurotic herself, so at times you feel sorry for the sandwiched Don.

Nevertheless, there is no lack of gusto in this production, and the show signs off with a stylish sequence of the cast as Don Lockwood-lookalikes, sporting silver umbrellas with multi-coloured undersides, splashing in unanimous enthusiasm in the second shower of rain.

This show is ideal if you want a trip down memory lane but have seen enough of the film. Don’t go expecting anything wildly different or inventive, however, as you will be disappointed.

Patience, Union Theatre

5 stars

Patience cast

I’m rather glad that I hadn’t been studious enough to read the (not-so) small print on the advert for Sasha Regan’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience at the Union Theatre. You can imagine my surprise then when twenty lovesick maidens came on in tea dresses with hairy legs, chests, shadows of facial hair, and some noticeable bald patches. After getting over my initial shock, I realised quite soon that – in more ways than the obvious – this production was something special.

The young men, mostly in their twenties, were comfortably singing the soprano line of the score as they wafted about the stage, often in sync, emotionally wound up, but physically wilting on account of their mutual love for the Aesthetic poet, Reginald Bunthorne (a comic and obstinate Dominic Brewer). Soon, Bunthorne and his sublimely prosaic poetry are ditched in favour of a newcomer in the ladies’ midst – the narcissistic beauty Archiblad Grosvenor. The milkmaid, Patience (Edward Charles Bernstone) – new to love and all that accompanies it – understands that the act of love must be one of self-sacrifice and so, with both men adoring her equally, she must choose the least desirable one (though this proves more complex than anticipated).

Bernstone as Patience is wholly engaging. With a sweep of thick blonde hair, piercing, enquiring eyes, and tanned, sculpted limbs, he captures the unintentional tease about this milkmaid, who – in trying to be self-sacrificial – becomes entirely self-obsessed. Bernstone perfectly mimics the verbal inflections of the era with exclamations such as, “Oh, horror!” containing both a clipped formality and a sadness that seems to hang over her as a woman and therefore with relatively little free will.

There is a bold and brilliant performance from Sean Quigley as Lady Gray, who pursues Bunthorne relentlessly, but cannot deny that she is losing her figure and her youthful looks. Once again, this actor seems to capture both the superficial humour of the character’s bitchiness, but also portrays a more deep-seated tragedy about this woman in grey calf-length socks and a shapeless frock who is desperate to love and be loved.

What I responded to so acutely in Sasha Regan’s production was the fact that it was not a piss-take. While extremely funny, it was never self-consciously so, and every principal and chorus member had found a truth in their character. There are some simple but stunning directorial touches, such as the maidens all hanging bunting in preparation for the husband raffle; the synchronised, almost other-worldly tea-drinking ritual as they sing their romantic troubles into their china; and an imaginative dance sequence that the (intentionally) clumsy dragoons execute.

The Union’s space is small, but presents no barriers for this production, though a glimpse of the ‘maidens’ after the show, trying to get changed while plastered up against the back of the set, brought home the realities of working as a large cast in this confined a space. The decision to pare the orchestra down to a single onstage piano, played adeptly by Richard Bates (who, I only observed after the curtain call, slunk off stage also in a skirt, not looking entirely comfortable about the fact) does not damage the music in the least, and the singing is sublime throughout.

I take my bonnet off to Sasha Regan who has committed to a startlingly bold vision for a lesser-known operetta that many people may consider to be dated. The result? Brilliant, clear, original and classy. Let’s hope this production has a life beyond the Union.

November 04, 2011

Parade, Southwark Playhouse

5 stars

Cast of Parade

Seeing Parade for what is now the third time, I firmly believe that this 1998 musical is set to be a classic. In 100 years’ time, I am confident that Jason Robert Brown’s musical will be performed across the globe and will still hold the inescapable power that it does now. With one of the finest scores in musical theatre, thoughtfully written roles, and a true story that simultaneously throws up issues about the society of the time, our timeless capacity to judge others, and the power and powerlessness of love, it is conventionally everything a good musical should be – but with an element that’s harder to diagnose: the power to make grown men weep at its closure.

Thom Southerland’s exquisite production at the Southwark Playhouse is one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen and, more specifically, one of the best examples of top-notch direction. While Parade was originally conceived as a large-scale show, Southerland proves here that the small-mindedness of Atlanta, Georgia is best encapsulated in the dingy enclosures of a railway arch where a brilliant small ensemble come together to clinch the fate of Leo Frank, the Jewish man wrongly accused of murdering a child.

Every moment in this production has been thought-through and makes for a production with no excess flesh. A table that needs to be carried off beautifully morphs into a coffin; the galleries at each end of the long space are used for civic scenes with speeches and to drape proud but grimy Star Spangled Banners from, and consequently scenes shift seamlessly from floor to gallery with no interruption. The ensemble is clearly a hundred per cent committed to their director’s vision, executing each scene crisply and with enormous passion. The chorus singing makes your ears glow red and the experience of being a part of this patriotic yet poignantly misguided – and at times grotesque – society is both thrilling and unbearable.

Alastair Brookshaw and Laura Pitt-Pulford are exceptional in the lead roles of Leo and Lucille Frank. Brookshaw brilliantly captures the obsessive side to Leo’s personality – his need for routine, for order, for control – which means that, even pre-prison, Leo is like a glass ornament in the midst of an erupting volcano. Pitt-Pulford as his young, but downtrodden wife brings out Lucille’s sense of humour and unconditional love for her husband, in spite of his flaws and prudishness. Her vocals are superbly controlled and she achieves a magical combination of desperation and dignity in both her singing and admirably subtle acting. One of the most powerful moments in the production is Lucille’s observation of her flailing husband being tried as she stands in the balcony of the courtroom, simultaneously a ghost, who can enforce no change, and an angel of goodness, promising her husband moral support through her determined gaze.

There is excellent support in the production in particular from Terry Doe, Samuel J. Weir, Mark Inscoe and Samantha Seager, and a small, but strident band that fit the space beautifully.

I will be watching Thom Southerland’s career with interest. Here is a director who, at a young age, has a superb eye for detail, commits himself wholeheartedly to a conception, and brings out the best in his actors and musicians. His production here is stylish, coherent and adventurous – yet, crucially, entirely in keeping with the show’s essence. For those who have seen this production, Southerland’s decision about how to stage the climax was one of the most original, tasteful and heart-wrenching moments I’ve seen on stage. Let’s hope that London’s fringe scene continues this brilliant example that he has set.
Lucille and Leo Frank

November 03, 2011

Inadmissible Evidence, Donmar Warehouse

1 star

Inadmissible Evidence at the Donmar Warehouse has met with unanimously positive reviews from the national press. Certainly, credit should be given to the Donmar, this little powerhouse of excellent theatre, for tackling yet another lesser-known and intriguing play – one of John Osborne’s last and most profoundly autobiographical. Yet I emerged from the theatre feeling unmoved, bored and rather baffled.

Osborne’s play, while linguistically virtuosic and funny, as his writing always tends to be, is also baggy, bombastic and stylistically muddled. And it isn’t made any clearer in Jamie Lloyd’s rather unadventurous and seemingly misguided production with Douglas Hodge in the main seat playing middle-aged lawyer Bill Maitland.

From the outset, you know that you’re in for a gruelling night. Hodge is at the forefront of the stage, twitching, shouting, and physically pulsating with the sort of nervous energy that only people who have breakdowns in drama school possess. We know we are in the territory of a chronic mental haemorrhage, but also feel that Hodge may have shot his bolt rather. How much more deranged can one person (still married, still employed in the law, still seducing multiple women, and still with over two hours of stage time ahead of them) become? This is like a production of King Lear in which the director decides that Lear will rip his clothes off on the heath in the very first scene.

What may have helped us understand this initial set up, and indeed the rest of the play, would have been a clearer sense of the interiority of Maitland’s breakdown, but there is nothing in Jamie Lloyd’s production at all to suggest that we are inside the mind of this man. Instead, the setting and approach throughout are starkly realistic. During this opening scene, a judge and solicitor lounge languidly in upstage armchairs, watching Hodge unravel before their eyes, with expressions similar to those if they were watching breakfast TV. The scene takes place in the office that forms the set for the rest of the play, which is brightly lit, leaving us with a sense of confusion as to where we are and what this is supposed to be. Perhaps if Lloyd had been a little more daring with staging, lighting and sound (distorted voice-overs for the other characters perhaps?) then we might have understood this scene to be a private insight into Maitland’s tormented mind – part of the surrealist dream scape of this play that the programme alludes to.

While Hodge’s deeply irritating unexplained ticks and hyper vocal activity slowly wear you down throughout the production, the rest of the characters suffer from being rather sketchily and unrealistically drawn by their author, and rather half-heartedly tackled by the actors. The second act is weighed down by a sequence of ponderous monologues –by two characters in whom the audience have no real interest, but which take up a disproportionate amount of time, and the other from Maitland. It features some of the most rancid dialogue you will hear in the theatre, yet when shock upon shock is piled on in order to try and climax what is an already climaxed play in the first scene, you soon find yourself rolling your eyes at Osborne taking up our precious time for such inane dialogue. I also have to say I was puzzled by Lloyd’s decision to have the only characters who are doubled up be two minor characters in the second act. Did his budget run out as they waded through this beast of a play?

Ultimately, this is a work which has an overwhelmingly sour heart. It is deeply unpleasant at best and is stretched out to such a degree that you almost become immune to its unpleasantness. In order to salvage something from it, I would like to see a younger actor like Sam West in the role of Bill Maitland, convincingly provoking some sexual arousal in his female companions and bringing out the superficial veneer of authority, charisma and control that I’m sure Osborne wanted Maitland to possess some of. As it stands, it is like having a drunken jelly on stage throughout. Furthermore, it would be good to have an editor with a red pen and a ruthless eye, and a director that is prepared to throw aside naturalism and tear at the play’s fabric to see what can be done with it. Only then can we stand a chance of appreciating, if not liking, this piece.

Inadmissable Evidence, Donmar Warehouse

Douglas Hodge: a drunken jelly

April 26, 2011

Woody Sez, Arts Theatre

5 stars


If it hadn’t been for a friend’s recommendation, I probably wouldn’t have been to see Woody Sez, a musical about the American folk singer of the mid-twentieth century, Woody Guthrie, devised by David M. Lutken. Luckily, my ignorance is not typical and nor did it stop me going, and Woody Guthrie has a loyal following of all ages, most of whom had flocked excitedly to this show. Guthrie, it transpires, was an important folk singer who bravely confronted his country’s politics, and irked the government, through his songs. With hindsight I wouldn’t have missed this show for the world and, far from being a nostalgic tribute work, the piece pointed out the uncanny relevance that Guthrie’s lyrics and sentiments have to our society today, with songs such as ‘Jolly Banker’ and ‘So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh’ striking chords in our financially stricken era both here and across the pond.

David M. Lutken’s ingenious show is one of the most original around. Playing Woody Guthrie with a mellow gravitas and sense of humour that is like a razor wrapped in cotton wool, he narrates Woody’s life in the first person earnestly and directly. He is supported by a super-talented cast of actor/musicians, who can not only all act, sing and play an instrument, but can play a myriad of different instruments, switching between them effortlessly. There is no tuning up, warming up or lining up sheet music – the instruments are plucked from the wings and played with a spontaneous abandon that is infectious. Each musical number, therefore, has a unique timbre, from the haunting beauty of Ruth Clarke-Irons accompanying herself on fiddle as she sings snippets of ‘The Ballad of Tom Joad’ throughout the show, to the exhilarating bluegrass sound of something like ‘This Train is Bound for Glory’.

Each actor takes on several cameo roles of people that featured in Guthrie’s life from his unstable, pyromaniac mother (played sensitively by Helen Jean Russell, who gives an exquisite rendition of ‘Curly Headed Baby’) to his eccentric fiddle-playing uncle (played by William Wolfe Hogan, who gives a manically virtuosic rendition of ‘Talkin’ Dust Bowl’) to his young daughter (played by Ruth Clarke-Irons, who drives forward the hilarious and poignant ‘Riding in the Car’ song).

It’s an inspiring example of ensemble theatre and sensitive musical ensemble all in one. The performers accompany each other just as well as they take the limelight. There are passages of mouth-watering harmony and some songs so rousing that the audience are singing along more loudly than the performers. The direction and musical direction are impressively slick meaning that each musical number has effective contour lines and moments of choreographic brilliance.

There is an appealing simplicity and innocence to this show that musicals rarely have the confidence to parade these days. But it’s not prim or old-fashioned in the least and pokes fun at its own individuality (Lutken jokes that they’re going to do a medley for the finale, like in Mamma Mia). The simplicity is effectively achieved through the performers remaining in one costume throughout, the scenery staying the same (projections of Guthrie, a plough in a field, and the deathly dust storm that is recollected), the performers not being mic-ed, as well as the direct, first-person narration that propels the story forward. Similarly, Guthrie’s life is poignant, significant and has political repercussions, but in other ways is unremarkable. It takes artistic confidence and vision to pull off something like this, but David M. Lutken and his talented team obviously have such qualities in wagonfuls.

A View from the Bridge, Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City

5 stars

I had the rare and precious treat of not knowing A View from the Bridge prior to this performance. Having read, studied or seen most of Miller’s work, all of which I consider to be nothing short of masterful, for one reason or another this one was, up until recently, something of a mystery to me.

I now think A View from the Bridge is truly one of Miller’s best plays, largely because he does what Miller does exceptionally well, but in a strikingly powerful way: he presents us with a misguided and morally dubious protagonist, Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman, plays out his wrongdoings and downfall in front of our eyes, and then makes us weep for him. As the fascinatingly pivotal character of Alfieri the lawyer says at the end about Eddie Carbone, “And so I mourn him – I admit it – with a certain . . . alarm”.

Eddie lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Beatrice, and his niece from Beatrice’s side, 18-year-old Catherine, who he has brought up as a daughter. As the play develops, Eddie’s attachment to Catherine increases, his attention to his wife diminishes, and the arrival of Beatrice’s Italian immigrant brother and friend, Marco and Rodolpho, provokes a battle over Catherine as she becomes a pawn in a power struggle which throws up questions of masculinity, familial loyalty, immigration, and personal choice.

Director Jack Wood has created a stonking production of this play at Welwyn Garden City’s tiny Barn Theatre. With the stage being the size of one room in a doll’s house, the actors are practically on top of one another, creating the ever-growing feeling of overcrowding that builds in the play as more people enter Eddie Carbone’s household, exacerbating his own need to cling onto Catherine singularly.

Eddie is played expertly by Patrick Sunners, whose helplessness in the face of uncontrollable and unmentionable desire for his niece comes across beautifully. He has a swagger and a bear-like demeanour, often indulging in displays of Italian animation, staking his claim petulantly and vocally to his home, his niece, and something less tangible that he can’t put his finger on. “I want my respect, Beatrice, and you know what I’m talkin’ about”. Beatrice doesn’t know what he’s talking about, however, and, more to the point, nor does Eddie. Like a toddler who hasn’t yet got the capacity to formulate words, Eddie flounders around trying to articulate what it is that he wants and what exactly his problem is with the young Rodolpho. “He ain’t right, Beatrice”, Eddie says of Rodolpho (Elliot Brown), who has quickly become Catherine’s young suitor, but who Eddie has noted has red hair, cooks, sings and makes dresses. Eddie’s inability to name and confront the hostility he feels towards Rodolpho, and the feeling he himself harbours for Catherine, is his undoing, and the action kaleidoscopes chaotically around him, to the tune of Eddie’s orders, leading to his eventual ruin.

Jan Palmer Sayer is excellent as Eddie’s wife – strident yet sensitive, sure yet sympathetic, and with a slightly gruff edge. Sayer masters the difficult job of showing true tenderness towards her niece, while also revealing the jealousy that she feels for the attention that Catherine receives from Eddie. The young Jennifer Macchia plays Catherine with a sweetness and ease, which makes Beatrice’s sympathy towards her believable. She has a gentle keen-to-please expression while in Eddie’s company, but an innocence which clears her of any sense of compliance in his attraction. Her eventual tirade against Eddie, when she describes him as a “rat”, is made all the more powerful because of Macchia’s sweet poise in the rest of the play. There is also a notably strong performance from Clive Weatherley as Alfieri, suitably detached from the rest of the Italian immigrant community. Occupying the lower part of the stage (an interesting touch by the director, which subverts the notion of this character as a god-like figure),there is a stiffness and angularity to Weatherley’s body language, which highlight how his thoughts and decisions are dictated by logic and rationality, rather than by impulse, as Eddie’s all are. Alfieri’s powerful speech at the end of the play as he acknowledges the attachment that he feels to this flawed human being, Eddie Carbone, and his pointless existence, is made all the more moving by the actor’s rather rigid and professional persona throughout.

This is an altogether powerful production in which the only slight drawback is the limited peripheral space which the neighbourhood locals have to crowd into. I can now add A View from the Bridge to my collection of Miller masterpieces. It is especially powerful when Miller shows us how wrong can grow out of good intentions. “A man works hard, he brings up a child, sometimes it’s a niece, sometimes even a daughter, and he never realizes it, but through the years – there is too much love for the daughter, there is too much love for the niece” Alfieri explains to Eddie. Eddie loved Catherine, provided for her, brought her up, and then somehow missed the point at which he was supposed to let go.


Patrick Sunners as Eddie Carbone and Jan Palmer Sayer as Eddie’s wife, Beatrice.

March 20, 2011

Season's Greetings, National Theatre

4 stars

This is yet another feat of the force that is the National Theatre. It is the first time Alan Ayckbourn has been staged at the NT in eleven years – and what a homecoming it is. Unlike the last play of Ayckbourn’s staged here (House and Garden in 2000), Season’s Greetings is a lot less fixated on structural tricks and gimmicks and, to some degree, puts the farce techniques often associated with Ayckbourn to one side in favour of a fuller and more independently drawn characters.

This Christmas for controlling wife Belinda (Catherine Tate) and her frustratingly incapable husband Neville (Neil Stuke), Santa brings presents, food and friends – and all the other problems associated with the festive season, not least the stuffy Uncle Bernard’s stuffy Christmas puppet show. When supposedly prolific author Clive (played by Oliver Chris) enters their midst, he seems to draw out the sexual frustration that has accumulated in Belinda as a result of her less-than-attentive husband. Alongside the jealous rivalry that develops between Belinda and Rachel (Nicola Walker), the latter who had initiated Clive’s visit in the first place, the person most disturbed by this unprepossessing newcomer is Harvey (an excellent David Troughton). His bullish nature, bloody-mindedness and army training all lead to him observing Clive with the utmost attention and suspicion.

The beauty of this Ayckbourn play is the many interactions and fraught dynamics that orbit the main action at any one time. And in Marianne Elliott’s masterly production, each character has been observed with such care and sensitivity that you get a whole cross-section of human pain and suffering – whether that’s through the heavily pregnant Pattie (a beautifully pitched performance by Katherine Parkinson) whose placid nature has made her a doormat for everyone, the unstable Phyllis (Jenna Russell on top form) or the please-just-leave-me-alone Eddie who, deep down, would like to shun all adult responsibilities and immerse himself in the pub and gadgets.

At any time on the stage, something is happening in different pockets of the house. The excellent direction in this production means that the accompanying action is at a perfect level to balance the main melody of drama, and the size of the Lyttelton stage means that – as a viewer – you never feel you are watching something cluttered. Rather, you can switch in and out of scenarios as if skipping through television channels.

What is perhaps the trickiest scene – Uncle Bernard’s dreary puppet show of The Three Little Pigs – is a demonstration of the mastery of this production. It’s got to be dull for the characters because that’s the point, but it can’t bore the audience. Elliott’s sensitivity to detail and her ability to perfectly counterpoint several levels of action, as well as the sincerity in Mark Gattis’s interpretation of Bernard, means that this is a tense and engrossing accumulation of all that is painful and hurtful in this household. Bernard swats thoughtlessly at Pattie’s incompetence with the props, Harvey doesn’t watch or listen, but nevertheless commentates, Phyllis totally misses the point, mistaking a person’s finger for a puppet caterpillar, and eventually the house comes tumbling down.

Ayckbourn’s play, as with so many of his works, is a deeply serious comment about how a lack of communication, understanding and empathy can destroy a household and a human heart in the same way as the puppet show collapses. We wince as characters repeatedly, and often unknowingly, bruise one another’s souls and fail to diagnose their own shortcomings. At the end, Bernard – a doctor – pronounces Clive dead, only to then witness his patient come around. “I can’t even get that right!” Bernard despairs, but this speaks volumes for all the characters, none of whom are capable of understanding other people or interpreting situations.


The Magic Flute, Royal Opera House

4 stars

The Magic Flute

It could be said that it’s difficult to go wrong with Mozart’s sublime 1791 piece that is The Magic Flute. While this may be true, it is wonderful and uplifting to encounter a production with as much flair, beauty and raw talent as in Lee Blakeley’s revival of David McVicar’s glorious incarnation at the Opera House.

Brilliantly cast with a gleaming trio of soloists at its heart (Christopher Maltman as Papageno, Joseph Kaiser as Tamino, and Kate Royal as Pamina), every aria is as enchanting as it ought to be. Kaiser and Royal both bring a purity of voice to their roles, but also demonstrate extraordinary versatility, in particular in their dynamic variation. Impressively, Maltman never lets the humour or bumpkin nature of his characterisation of Papageno upstage his singing, and his voice is rich and powerful throughout. Kaiser has perhaps the most delicious voice out of the cast in my opinion, the ring of his higher register like nothing else in the show.

Supporting these three outstanding singers are two other topnotch threesomes – namely a wonderful trio of ladies of the night with impeccable ensemble, and the exquisitely angelic sounding choir boys (here presented as three rather ragged school boys), flying in what looks like a homemade go-cart with wings that they operate.

This production does not hold back on the spectacle and what a treat that is. There are puppets and masks, a dancer on stilts, a great glowing disk of a sun that is rolled on, an ice-like gigantic moon, an eccentric study room with chalk writing all the way up to the top of the stage, and a dramatic revolving replica of the solar system. There are also very cute children galore who, though they don’t essentially ‘do’ anything, are the finishing touch in this utopian community.

The orchestra, for this performance under the baton of David Syrus, is outstanding, achieving a stunning sense of ensemble. There is some particularly gorgeous playing from the first flute (Sarah Brooke).

In such a large-scale and ambitious production, there are bound to be a few weak spots. On our night, the Queen of the Night (Jessica Pratt) was ill and so another singer bravely stood in, but unfortunately made a hash of her much-awaited aria. Franz-Josef Selig as Sarastro has one of the best-sounding voices in the cast no doubt, but is rather erratic rhythmically. And Alasdair Elliott makes for a strange casting choice as Monostatos, never really stirring up the faintest nerve amongst the audience. Also, while this production has obviously aimed for the large-cast, big spectacle approach, the only chorus choreography as such is dancers as animals jumping rather aimlessly about the stage, and some slightly cringe-worthy physical theatre during the trials of fire and water.

However, these are minor complaints in what is a stellar production with some singers that no doubt will be remembered for their roles (in particular, watch out for Kate Royal who clearly has what it takes to make it…). It’s refreshing, too, to see a Flute that isn’t too pantomime-focused, and hearing it in its original language only confirms one’s sense of this being exactly what Mozart intended for his opera.

Sugar, HMP Send

5 stars

Following the jubilant performance of "Sugar", the Stone, Styne and Merrill musical based on "Some Like It Hot", the audience were left cheering, laughing through tears, and shouting for more. However, there were no autograph signings from the cast, no stage door appearances, and no cast drinks afterwards. Instead, the company were escorted straight back to their cells, only after which the audience could leave the auditorium. "Sugar", performed in HMP Send, a closed female training prison with 282 inmates, is the latest venture of Pimlico Opera, under the inspiring leadership of Wasfi Kani OBE.

It is without doubt a vital and brilliant cause, as is clear from the sheer number and stature of the patrons listed in the programme and the fact that the Prisons Minister, Crispin Blunt, called the production "utterly marvellous and inspiring". While Kani heads Pimlico Opera with a steeliness and ambition that would wow most City workers, not very far beneath the supposedly ruthless surface is a heart that is moved year upon year and at every performance by the prisoners' plights and the impact of their involvement with Pimlico. Tears rolling from under her glasses, Wasfi tells us how she is struck by the uncertainty of the future for these women and the realities they will face when life goes back to normal and Pimlico Opera leaves the prison. "It could have been you", she says, astonished and moved at the sheer stroke of fortune that the life of one of these women didn't fall to her.

At a pre-show tour of the prison a week earlier, we had the privilege of speaking with the woman who is making all of the costumes for the production. At 67, she is serving a life sentence, but speaks with a soft-spoken delight and pride at having this opportunity. Her days now consist of hand sewing in her cell before breakfast and after dinner, and using a sewing maching in the prison's craft workshop throughout the days. Practically single-handedly, she is kitting out the entire cast. Sitting next to this wardrobe mistress is a woman making cards who couldn't be in the show, but who signed her sister up instead. A dry Geordie, she is far from sentimental, but confesses that she and the other prisoners absolutely cannot wait to see the show. "I'm not going to believe it when I see my sister come on stage!" she laughs.

In the rehearsal room, as a handful of professional performers and creative team work alongside the cast and crew of about 30 prisoners, it is clear what a professional set-up Pimlico Opera is. The highest standard is expected of everyone. No exceptions are made for people who haven't learnt their songs or dances, and scenes are rehearsed mercilessly by director Michael Moody. The prisoners are drilled with the same rigour as the professional performers and, as a result, the concentration in the room is tangible. There are a range of ages of women from their early twenties to their sixties, and the perimeter of the room bustles with prisoners involved backstage doing hair, make-up, costumes, scenery, lighting and props.

For the fortnight of the show, a vast marquee has been erected in the prison grounds with an elaborate set and elongated stage with audience on either side. At one end is a beach scene; at the other a line of sleeper train compartments. A fantastic brass-heavy professional band have been brought in under musical director Toby Purser's baton and, as the music starts, the women rush on in fabulous costumes, successfully performing the demanding choreography and direction, and owning the stage.

Every cast member has a named part that generally falls into the camp of slick Chicago gangster or likeable, lively airhead. The professional principals, Rob Gildon, Duncan Patrick, Deryck Hamon and Victoria Ward, propel the hilarious and farcical action forward skilfully, and the rest of the cast follow suit with some rousing chorus numbers, delightful cameo roles, and an overwhelming energy and enthusiasm that no audience member can resist. This show is alive and kicking, and it boasts an impressive attention to detail. 

Not only do the people involved, who don't necessarily have a background in theatre, experience the pleasure of working on something top-quality, but the other prisoners have the opportunity to watch their peers in a show that is nothing short of brilliant.

The individual cast programme biogs say it all really, and I'm already looking forward to next year's project.

"I have seen through participating in this the confidence it has given the women including myself.” (Follow spot)

“I didn’t know I could sing or dance. I feel like a different person.” (Trigger Mickey)

“I feel this is beneficial for prisoners as they don’t alienate you, but they make you feel a valuable part of the production instead of just a prisoner.” (Backstage assistant)

“This production is the first time women in this prison have been allowed to express their deepest emotions through acting and this is something that should be encouraged. The discipline of coming to work and doing a full day’s work engaged in something challenging is the perfect way to channel emotions which would minimise being disruptive” (Train Conductor)

“My sons Alexander and Christopher and partner, plus my sister are coming to watch the show. Something for us to tell my lovely granddaughters and baby boy.” (Baby Face Nelson)

“During my time in prison this opera is the first thing I have enjoyed.” (Cirly Girl)

“I have found confidence in things I never thought I would and it has opened my eyes to new ideas for my future.” (Backing Singer)

“Pimlico...recognise that prison should be about engaging individuals as opposed to traumatising which makes prison unbearable.” (Olga)

Clybourne Park, Wyndham's Theatre

4 stars

Clybourne Park

It is deeply exciting to be living at a time when new plays are aplenty and talented, often young, writers seem to be growing like wild flowers. While there may be a resulting fetish for the new and a hunger to pull the next Polly Stenham or Anya Reiss from the masses, a greater preoccupation should really be with which of these playwrights will still be having their work performed and studied thirty, forty, fifty years from now. Watching Dominic Cooke’s production of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, which has transferred from the Royal Court, makes you realise that this is a play that will surely come back again and again because of what it says about society’s attitudes and the inescapability of one’s past.

Set in Chicago in 1959 and 2009 respectively, Norris’s play is cleverly structured in two halves that roughly mirror each other. It takes as its central focus racial bigotry and the personal prejudices that lie within us all, on many levels. Act I is based on Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, bringing characters to life that are only alluded to in Hansberry’s play – the white household nervously awaiting the arrival of a black family into their neighbourhood. As the neighbours gather in the household of Russ and Bev, who are selling their home, to discuss their new neighbours’ imminent arrival, their deep concerns about the effect it will have on house prices, as well as their more general racist attitudes, are brought to light.

Stuart McQuarrie is excellent as the more liberal-minded but moral coward Russ, his brooding, private presence building beautifully to a more emotional climax at the end of the act. And Sophie Thompson, while on the cusp of irritating, captures truthfully the bored, naive, but nevertheless caring housewife whose strained positivity towards black people is more endearing than insulting. Sam Spruell, Stephen Campbell Moore and Sarah Goldberg are all first-class as the meddling neighbours, their joviality filling the house with a superficial, sunny American buoyancy, but their views and concerns scattering an invisible poison throughout the home. And Lorna Brown is excellent as the dignified, poised black maid Francine who, along with her black husband (the slightly bumbling Albert, played excellently by Lucian Msamati) is forced to listen to the white folk tiptoe around – and sometimes stamp straight on – issues concerning the black folk.

The highlight of the act is Karl (Campbell Moore) overstepping an already overstepped mark in his racial outlook, prompting Russ to order him out of his home. Campbell Moore stands, flabbergasted, giggling with embarrassment and shock at the ultimatum, and refusing to budge. It’s one of the best representations of human awkwardness and incomprehension in the face of ignorance that I’ve seen on stage, and it leaves one feeling deeply uncomfortable about these characters.

What is brilliant about Norris’s portraits is that there is no moral leader – no character that spearheads the plight for equality of race. Some are more discreet and more sensitive to the assembled company, but the white people here all fundamentally share common views. Yet, amazingly, we don’t despise any of them. They are showing symptoms of their time and society, and their procrastinating is just an illustration of the warped views of the era. In a bizarre way, too, these characters are genuinely trying to do what they believe is right for their neighbourhood.

Norris’s humour is bold and cutting, yet so cleanly executed that it’s hilarious though often deeply uncomfortable. There is something morbidly funny and absurd about a black man having to listen to outright racial abuse, having just been invited enthusiastically into the home, while a deaf, pregnant woman (Betsy, played by Goldberg) shouts incoherent and intermittent opinions, at the same time as a do-good vicar tries to soften the caustic insults flying around the room.

The second act is framed by a dilapidated version of the first act’s set, with soiled floors, brown-stained walls and empty window panes. It is fifty years later and a group of people have come together to discuss the plans of Lindsey and Steve (Goldberg and Campbell Moore) to buy this same property, flatten the house and rebuild from scratch in what is now an all-black neighbourhood. While all the characters in this setting have take-out Starbucks cups, juggle the meeting with personal calls on their cell phones, and clearly have managed a family-work life effortlessly, the shocking thing about the situation is that the attitudes are just the same as those displayed in the first act, though in different guises. Beneath the gushingly empathetic surfaces, these characters are experiencing tensions and differences so rife that there is clearly no possibility of conciliation, not just between different races, but between men and women as well.

Norris’s particular skill in writing this act is that nothing has been tipped on its head or neatly turned inside out. Rather the tectonic plates of the action have all subtly shifted around so the slightly camp vicar in the first half (Spruell) is now an out-of-the-closet gay, the lawyer (previously Bev) is the daughter of the first act’s Karl and Betsy, and Lena (Brown) is the great niece of Francine, the maid. As you can see, it makes for a rather crooked family tree, but consequently the power dynamics are deeply engaging.

Goldberg and Campbell Moore are outstanding as the all-American young couple – beautiful, articulate, and expecting child, but deeply unhappy and tense underneath it all. Steve’s condescending comforting of his wife and her highly strung state is fabulously played out in dialogue that is so true to life as to leave you incredulous. The planning permission meeting is deliberately meandering and frustratingly tangential, but every exchange reveals so much about each character and the tensions that exist between them. Lena, essentially chairing the meeting, resides with a quiet dignity at the centre of it all, approaching the issues professionally and admirably. Yet the escalating hostility in the meeting leads to even her being stripped of all formality and revealing her prejudiced attitudes towards white people.

The importance and inescapability of history in our lives and society is symbolised by the huge trunk that Bev and Russ have been trying to move out of their home in the first act. We are led to believe it is full of the letters and memories of their now-deceased son. It is unmovable in the first act and ends up stolidly wedged on the staircase. In the second act, it is brought in by Dan the builder (McQuarrie) and sits, idly but obviously, in the centre of the stage, covered in dust, with no attempt from anyone to shift it or even to question what exactly it’s doing there. The attitudes, too, weigh heavily on these people and Norris leaves us wondering whether personal prejudice – the most dangerous, hidden kind – can ever really be conquered.

January 31, 2011

The Glass Menagerie, Young Vic

2 stars

Glass Menagerie

I find it fascinating that Tennessee Williams’s reaction to one of the most traumatic events of his life – his beloved sister undergoing a lobotomy – was to write only days later one of his most reflective, poised and consciously theatrical plays. Tom Wingfield, the central character often allied with Williams himself, introduces the piece as a ‘memory’ play, thereby excusing any exaggeration, untruths, omissions or leaps in time. What we then see enacted is a sequence of past events from Tom’s perspective, as he reflects on his guilt at abandoning his ‘crippled’ sister, Laura, to join the army.

What I consider to be the play’s true stroke of genius is that the central symbol of the play (a glass unicorn, Laura’s favourite item of her precious menagerie and a symbol of Laura herself) comes to an ambiguous end. Does the fact that his horn accidentally gets broken off mean that Laura is liberated from the mental constraints of her physical disability? Or does it mean that, through losing the horn, Laura has lost the very thing that made her unique and special? At the end of the play, Laura’s future is thus uncertain, and we are left simultaneously wanting to weep and to cheer.

With exceptions in some of the acting and several powerful moments, I was overall rather disappointed with Joe Hill-Gibbins’s production, currently showing at the Young Vic. Leo Bill plays Tom Wingfield as if he were a heroin addict suffering severe withdrawal symptoms. He lurches about the stage, shaking and shouting in fury, the noise of his stamping a big distraction. The poisonous power of some of Tom’s most cutting lines (he calls his mother “a babbling old witch”, really cutting the jugular) is obscured by a general tumult of shouting and Leo Bill even has adopted the clichéd habit of rotating his wrists in an effort to appear ‘disturbed’. There is no denying that Tom’s mother Amanda annoys the hell out of him. But she is his mother and, therefore, he doesn’t hate her. In a moment of particular tenderness when Amanda joins Tom on the terrace to wish on the moon, Leo Bill shoots daggers at Amanda and stiffens up completely when she hugs him. If it’s so bad, he would have left home already. There is something holding Tom back though and it’s firstly a love and loyalty to his sister, but it’s secondly – and not insignificantly – a concern and care for his stifling mother.

Leo Bill makes Tom’s experience in the Wingfield household seem more like a temporary Big Brother one – an environment into which he’s been parachuted – and what doesn’t come across is how mundane his existence there is. Tom has never left home in twenty years. Amanda’s nagging is annoying, but it’s normal, and Tom needs to be in a place where he bristles at these things, but isn’t apoplectic.

If you haven’t already got earache from Bill’s general bearing, then you will be helped along by Deborah Findlay’s incessant barking as Amanda. In many respects, it’s a fine performance from Findlay who captures Amanda’s fundamental warmth and good nature underlying the chatter and hysteria. Her smile is a beaming example of Southern charm and her intermittent bursts of girlish laughter are infectious. Yet Findlay (suffering from a hoarse throat during our performance) pumps out her words as if she’s on a football terrace – and Amanda has a lot of words. What’s missing is the singsong elegance that should kick in when her jonquil-tinted past is recounted – a lightness that makes her allergic to all things modern. After all, her one trip out in the play she returns from in tears.

Sinead Matthews makes for a beautiful Laura with a sweetness that is never too sickly and a remarkable inner strength. Matthews’s understanding of her character is superior, and her gentle support of, and sympathetic compliance with, her mother really comes across. ‘Let her tell it’, she chides Tom, knowing that to recall her past is essentially what makes her mother happy. The sequence in which Amanda forces Laura to answer the door to the Gentleman Caller is particularly poignant as we see Laura’s desperate and pathological resistance mount to an unbearable level. But even Matthews was having problems with her voice on the night we were in, meaning that many of her lines came out as an unexpected squeak, much like a choir boy whose voice keeps breaking. Kyle Soller as Jim, the Gentleman Caller and old high school crush of Laura’s, gives a strong performance, buoyant with a lingering American school boy arrogance, and his scene with Laura, as he coaxes her to him as you would do a timid bird with crumbs in your hand, is moving.

The whole concept is a great use of space and the Young Vic auditiorium – with its slightly dingy interior and vast space – provides the perfect setting for a play like this which presents a diseased America, masked only by jazz, dancing and sex. The levels of the stage are effectively employed with tiered fire escapes and a dramatic portrait of a handsome and beaming Father Wingfield looming ominously over the action. Simon Allen and Eliza McCarthy provide an exquisite musical score to the action on the piano and glass bells. In truth, I think these two musicians, working so intimately together, give the most sensitive performances of the night.

But, sadly, director Joe Hill-Gibbons has missed the ‘glass’ aspect of Williams’s play, one which the playwright describes as a ‘quiet’ piece. We, the audience, should be reluctant to breathe or laugh, should we shatter the menagerie of characters on stage. And in this context should come a few moments of razor-sharp pain when a character causes another one to break (eg. when Amanda accuses Tom of being selfish, Tom calls Amanda a witch, and Jim tells Laura that he is engaged). I don’t deny that this is a difficult play to put across and it’s important that directors and actors should be encouraged to constantly reinterpret it. But I feel this director has done away with the ethereal beauty of the play and replaced it with a loud, dysfunctional, and far less nuanced, American family, thrashing out their problems.

October 26, 2010

Ivan and the Dogs Soho Theatre

5 stars

It is a great thrill to see a great actor perform a well-known role that is much anticipated. But no one can prepare you for the excitement of watching a lesser-known actor giving an exquisite performance in a strong piece of new writing. Hattie Naylor’s Ivan and the Dogs is currently showing at the Soho Theatre, having started life originally as a play on Radio 4. A cast of one, the character of Ivan reflects back on his time sleeping rough on the streets of Moscow as a young child during Russia’s political and economic crisis of the 1990s. Based on a true story, four-year-old Ivan Mishukov escaped his turbulent home life to live on the streets where he was adopted by a pack of wild dogs.

It is a poignant tale told with an endearing childish simplicity enhanced by the fact that the character of Ivan has not grown up or lived long enough to become detached from his experience or to lose his intuition, but he has matured enough that he can be gently self-mocking about his four-year-old self. The narrative has a raw quality to it – an ache and an exhilaration – as if, for the first time, Ivan is opening his heart to a person he has come to trust.

In Ellen McDougall’s hauntingly beautiful production, Ivan is played by Polish actor Rad Kaim whose profound understanding of his character’s emotions and worldview are a rare thing to watch. Sat, crouched or cowering throughout in a bright white box on stilts, Ivan retells his experience, often in hushed tones, with an immediacy and vulnerability that draws you in and holds you spellbound throughout. What comes across powerfully is the character’s superior instinctiveness which, at four years old, ensures his survival against the odds. He has a hatred for his violent alcoholic stepfather, who has “monster’s breath”, he mistrusts the street “bombzi”, who want something bad from him, and is wary of the young glue-sniffers who have “nothing in their eyes”. By contrast, his love and respect for Belka, the large white dog that first befriends him, is marked by his immediate recognition of her “big, hungry, sad eyes”.

There is a quiet intelligence about Ivan, as he listens almost serenely to the fierce arguments between his mother and step-father and calmly narrates gangster shootings in the apartment next door. But there is also a buoyant resilience and vivacity which come to fruition as he recalls his encounters with the wild dogs and their victories on the streets together as they pilfer food from rubbish bins, run rings around the militia men (police), and make the bully-boy cry. Ivan’s robust nature is infectious as he enthuses about the crisps he remembered to bring from home, the two bits of carpet he uses to sleep between, and the first potato that Belka takes from his hand. With sparing and beautifully judged use of visual perspective, Ivan crouches sideways in his box as he offers the food to Belka for the first time. It is an exquisite moment as his mouth is locked in trembling awe and his arm is outstretched, as his fingers slowly and coaxingly rub together.

There is an intense beauty in Ivan’s recollection of the dogs in the chirpy accounts of their names and personalities; in the sense of breathless exhilaration as he runs and barks with them as part of their pack; and in his incredulity that – at every occasion – the dogs come to his defence. At these moments, Kaim breaks into a beaming smile, which make for some of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking moments in theatre.

Naylor’s writing is nicely restrained and naturally poetic, structured around the childlike narrative device of ‘and then’. At no point is it sentimental or twee, and Ivan’s murderous feelings towards his step-father are captured in a passage which is boldly brutal as Ivan hisses hatefully through gathering tears. And, without force, the piece goes beyond being a child’s first-hand account to a meditation on human nature and people’s ability (and tendency) to lie. Dogs don’t lie; they just are. With just the right amount of emotive high and low points throughout the hour-long piece, an effective use of narrative symmetry, coupled with imaginative yet unobtrusive direction and Kaim’s intuitive sense of pacing, the piece becomes exquisite.

Subtle lighting changes, an evocative and varied soundscape alongside simple, ghostly projections of the dogs across the back of the white box provide all you need to feel the icy cold and loneliness of night time Moscow, the claustrophobic heat of the glue-den, and the panoramic peace of the countryside surrounding the city.

This is theatre at its simplest and best. I’m excited to see what actor Rad Kaim does next.

Ivan and the Dogs

July 21, 2010

After the Dance, National Theatre

5 stars

It’s a rare and beautiful thing to come across a production as beautifully realised as Thea Sharrock’s After the Dance, now in its final leg at the National. A lesson both in acting and direction, this is a humbling example of the extraordinary power that theatre, when it’s done well, can have.

Terrence Rattigan’s play looks at the dangers of not being true to oneself and not saying all that we should for the sake of what others may think and for fear of being perceived as a “bore” – a word that preoccupies all of the play’s characters. “He’s gone dreary on us”, complains the frivolous Julia Browne (Pandora Colin) as she laments an old friend setting up his own window cleaning business in Manchester. These condemnatory characters live an idle, supercilious existence of gossip and banter, fuelled by an excess of narcotics.

David Scott-Fowler is the greatest advocate of this both jovial and debauched lifestyle, and is here played by an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, who evolves from a hedonistic, selfish man being waited on, drinking heavily and enjoying a fun but detached existence from his wife to, at the end, a glazed and deeply thoughtful “bore”, contemplating seriously what it’s like to really need someone. The still young Cumberbatch gives his character a convincing middle-age gravitas, which invites the affections of the sweetly scheming twenty year-old Helen (a bright-eyed performance by Faye Castelow), and the silent, ashamed love of the vivacious socialite that is his wife, Joan (a fantastically sexy and brave-faced performance by Nancy Carroll).

When Helen and David suddenly announce their passionate love and imminent plans to marry, Helen’s fiancé and cousin to David, Peter (a poignantly cheerful and good-hearted John Heffernan) quietly crumples and Joan breaks down in a rare moment of weakness and honest emotion. She has loved her husband all along, but even after twelve years of marriage has never felt able to tell him so for fear of seeming a bore. It is this tragic and destructive lack of communication that makes this play such a sorry one.

In a production where every casting is absolutely right and each directorial decision is wholly appropriate, there is one performance which must be singled out as one of the best I’ve seen. Adrian Scarborough plays John Reid, the resident friend whose bed and board is funded by what he considers to be his entertainment value. Initially, John seems to be the play’s fop, permanently installed with feet up on the sofa and issuing witticisms, loathe to do any work, and with a penchant for pocketing household items. What soon emerges, however, is an incredibly perceptive and wise man whose sanity and sound judgement prevent (or almost prevent) several messy situations in the play. Like Lear’s Fool, John is David’s closest ally as they jest together, wind each other up, and merrily and moodily rub along side by side. Fundamentally, David hears from John the truth, superficially rejects it, and then accepts it. Lear’s question to the Fool, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” to which the Fool answers, “Lear’s shadow” would not be out of place in the play, which essentially tracks David’s plight to find himself in a society where disguising oneself is the default. Scarborough, with his stout and calmly watchful presence is pitch-perfect in this role and the production’s greatest asset.

The National at the moment seems to be having a field day with deliciously extravagant set designs and this production is no different. An elegant 1930s style apartment in Mayfair, with a grand piano and a long balcony running its length immediately capture the grandeur and excess of this era. Yet, during the second act’s stylish and decadent party, the balcony curtains are drawn back to reveal a woman knelt in front of a trouserless man on the balcony. It is also from this balcony that the tragic turning-point of the plot happens. This inseparable mix of superficial romance and deep-rooted sordidness makes Rattigan’s play so particularly potent, and is beautifully encapsulated in Sharrock’s production.

Full credit to every member of this cast and creative team for their involvement in what is undoubtedly the best piece of theatre I’ve ever seen.

After the Dance

February 21, 2010

Sweet Charity, Menier Chocolate Factory

Beg, borrow, or steal a ticket for the sake of Charity

5 stars

sweet charity

Sweet Charity, which originally burst onto the Broadway stage in 1966, running for 600 performances, tells the quirky and poignant tale of a resilient spirit. The show, written by Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, and Dorothy Fields, with original choreography by Bob Fosse, depicts a young woman – a dance hall hostess – in her quest for love and to be loved. Charity Hope Valentine is the flaneur of the title, wandering through transient love affairs and, at each stage, ending up disappointed, but never downhearted. She is initially pushed into a lake and robbed by her fiancé number one, Charlie, and then later let down by fiancé number two, Oscar, who is so prudish that he decides he cannot deal with Charity’s sexual past. Yet the more this Jack in the Box is pushed down, the more heartily she pops up.

Matthew White’s production of Sweet Charity at the Menier Chocolate Factory is absolutely top-notch. If you are tempted to roll your eyes at the fact that East Enders star Tamzin Outhwaite has been brought in to play the title role, then don’t bother. She is terrific and carries the show with oodles of panache, a smile as broad as a letter box, and an infectious zest for life, even in the face of Charity’s bitter disappointment. With her Doris Day freshness, sassy top hat and cane dance moves, and slightly smoky voice, Outhwaite carries the show with a vital drive and confidence that surely few leading ladies could offer.

She is supported by an ensemble so committed and energetic, doubling up roles with true originality and executing Stephen Mears’s challenging choreography with startling precision and class. Highlights of the show include “The Rich Man’s Frug” in which the Fosse influence is at its most pronounced and eccentric, and “Rhythm of Life” as a group of drugged-up hippies are led by “Daddy” in an alternative sermon under the Manhattan Bridge.

A special mention for character should go to Mark Umbers who plays all of Charity’s love interests with impressive variation, switching swiftly from the sinister Charlie to the suave Italian film star, Vittorio Vidal, who regards Charity with an affectionate bafflement, to the goofy Oscar, whose sincerity and shyness are heart-breaking.

An equally integral part of the show, of course, is the powerful nine-piece band, under the direction of Nigel Lilley, which produce a thrillingly fat jazz sound that pumps the whole Menier auditorium with life – not least because four of the band are spread across the back of the stage and so create an exciting surround sound.

It’s a treat to see a musical in a space as intimate as the Menier and, as always, the creative team have overcome its spatial limits. Simple moveable raked steps act as a fairground ride, the Manhattan Bridge, and the fire escape steps outside the seedy Fan-Dango Ballroom, over which the hostess girls nonchalantly drape themselves . The costumes provide the necessary colour, as well as a painted proscenium arch, and – more importantly – a stellar cast and band, who appear to relish every moment of this simultaneously wacky and heart-wrenching show. It is brilliant news that this Sweet Charity has a life in the West End after the Menier.

February 14, 2010

Serenading Louie, Donmar Warehouse

2 stars


Admittedly, not many people in the UK have heard of Lanford Wilson, the American playwright whose 1970 play, Serenading Louie, is currently being shown at the Donmar. Based on the evidence of last night, it’s not absolutely clear why we should have heard of him either. Serenading Louie is a meandering presentation of two decade-long marriages, both of which are going down the toilet. According to Alex, it’s because his somewhat unstable wife Gabby is sex-mad apparently, so much so that he feels “castrated by his own wife”. For Carl it’s because his wife, Mary, is having an affair with her husband’s company’s accountant and – it seems – also with Alex, but, unlike in his youth, Carl can’t even summon up the energy to care. Over the course of the two-hour play, we see the couples on their own, not communicating, one trying desperately to facilitate some contact, the other resolutely avoiding their spouse, and both taking refuge in other aspects of their lives to distract from their marriages. In the second half, the couples get together for drinks at Mary and Carl’s, and muse about the past, their rosy high-school days, and when they first got together. As Mary rather astutely says in one of the rare moments of insight in the play, “I didn’t love Carl then but I love Carl then now”. The play abounds with anti-feminist attitudes, male “business” talk, and rather crude glimpses into the secrets that these couples have.

In a plethora of American plays about disintegrating marriages in the face of unattainable aims, and the disillusion that comes with this, Lanford Wilson’s work does nothing to carve out new territory and has, frankly, very little to recommend it even in isolation. For the majority of the play, you feel that you are sitting in on a very dull dinner party of drunk, brash Americans, who are reminiscing about people you don’t know and aren’t really worth reminiscing about anyway, and occasionally indulging their nostalgia by breaking into old college songs (hence the play’s title). It is like Edward Albee on Calpol, and the play becomes an aimless extended dialogue between the four characters about where it all went wrong.

Which is all the more unfortunate when you consider the brilliant acting talent on show here. Indeed, it’s rare to see such four such polished performances. Jason Butler Harner makes an excellent Alex, weasel-like in his deceitfulness, scarily emphatic in his criticisms of his wife, and turning into a chaotic, hair-tugging mess at the end as his affair with a seventeen-year-old is discovered. Charlotte Emmerson as his trusting and somewhat juvenile wife gives this difficult part a husky charm, coping especially well with the rather random cluster of subjects she has to cover in a monologue at the start, and Geraldine Somerville plays Mary as a steely, controlling woman with an ice-like presence and poised assuredness. The rapport between the four actors is inspiring and most convincing. I felt sorry for them being lumbered with such a lethargic and clichéd script.

Simon Curtis’s direction is mostly good, although I feel his overall spatial concept doesn’t quite work. Peter McKintosh’s ‘70s living room set is very appealing and acts as the home for both couples, with their separate existences drawing closer and closer towards the end so that the space becomes almost without walls. With this superficially realistic set, however, the occasional moments when characters have to step out of the situation and address the audience directly for a fleeting line only jar. “You’ll probably remember this” Carl has to suddenly say to an audience member in the middle of an otherwise wholly realistic scene. Whether we are supposed to be participants in this drama or onlookers I’m not sure, and this only leads to the overall sense of this play having very little clarity. Maybe Curtis could have experimented with a more minimalist set and experimented with lighting and other more abstract effects to make this play feel less of a schizophrenic drawing-room drama and more of a study of time and space. The characters stepping out of character maybe only three times in the play – and only for a line at a time – felt as peculiar and alienating to me as if Willy Loman had come out at the end of Death of a Salesman to throw sweets to the audience.

The Americans, we know, like their epic drama. We have only to look at the fantastic success that was August: Osage County last year, along with older American works that Kevin Spacey has been staging at the Old Vic, to appreciate that. But unfortunately, Lanford Wilson’s play is an epic without an epicentre, and consequently, this lends itself to a very tedious evening.

January 27, 2010

The Caretaker, Trafalgar Studios

3 stars


It sometimes can be detrimental to your appreciation of a play to see a particularly great performance of a role. This is the case with the wonderful Michael Gambon’s portrayal of Pinter’s cantankerous caretaker back in 2001, which is one I will never forget. Like a dishevelled, mumbling mammoth, he was reminiscent of Sad Sack in the Raggy Dolls, for those who remember.

As a result, it took some getting used to Jonathan Pryce’s more vigorous, sprightly interpretation of Pinter’s caretaker in Christopher Morahan’s production. With an accent that resembles a muddled mixture of Liverpudlian, Welsh, Irish, and Geordie – and can also slip effortlessly into RP – this caretaker becomes somewhat more of a social anomaly and his rantings about “foreigners” become all the more ironic, when he himself epitomises the misplaced outsider. With his fresh-face and duckling-fluff hair, Pryce’s Davies maintains a hyper energy throughout the play, running through snippets of old comedy routines he’s learnt, trying out silly voices, constantly distracting even himself, and role-playing (even playing the poor tramp that needs a few coppers govnah). His eyes are lively and his tongue frequently flicks out of the side of his mouth in affected joviality, but he can switch to raging anger within seconds.

By stark contrast, Peter McDonald’s Aston is focused and intent only on one thing – fixing his plug and then moving onto erecting his shed. With his narrowed eyes and tongue that works its way around his mouth in agonised concentration, there is a intense serenity about him, which – it transpires – is actually the result of a traumatic lobotomy. Lastly, Sam Spruell plays Mick as a jittery young man, restlessly moving around, perching momentarily on any available item of furniture to continue his ongoing interrogation of Davies. Slim and pasty-faced, he is not an obvious villain, but his sharp changes of moods make him genuinely unsettling.

While I felt neither of the actors playing the brothers brought anything radically new to their characters, playing them somewhat safe which could have stemmed from the actors’ lack of inquisitiveness into their strange, extended speeches, nevertheless the ever-shifting power dynamics were explored well in the play. Physically or verbally, Davies sidled up to the brothers alternately, at one point lying uncomfortably close to Mick in a desperate attempt to win his affection and so stay in his newfound lodging.

This is a fine production of a great play, brought to a lovely climax as Mick opens the window that Davies had so petulantly insisted on leaving closed. As the hum of traffic and a bitter chill sweeps through the room, Pryce’s head drops into his hands in a moment of harsh realisation and resignation as he prepares to face a life of homelessness once again.

November 30, 2009

Endgame, Duchess Theatre

Left Rather Empty At The End

3 stars

In Beckett’s Endgame, things have an uncanny capacity to run out. We get a sense of life lasting for an allocated time, of resources being non-renewable, and of characters encountering multiple ‘ends’ – the sugar plums have finished, bicycles are simply no more, and the pain killer bottle is totally empty. What Beckett creates here – unlike in Waiting for Godot where life goes on because of unending self-perpetuation – is a sense of a floor which keeps slipping suddenly from under you: every step you tread may be that fatal step on the disused land mine.

Endgame is a deeply philosophical and psychological play, which means – as with most of Beckett’s works – it’s notoriously difficult to pull off, especially in a large West End theatre where audiences tend to have a less trained ear than those that migrate to the Fringe theatres. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan managed it marvellously in the recent Godot, but this is owing to their mighty experience and unusually strong acting ability.

Mark Rylance and Simon McBurney, by contrast, struggle to wholly grasp their roles. Rylance plays Hamm as a sarcastic, attention-seeking retired actor, although he barely looks old enough to be at this point of nostalgic self-reflection. He is sardonic to the extreme that he mocks Beckett’s very writing and his character’s affectation, which makes us think that Hamm doesn’t take himself, or life, that seriously. Limp-legged in his grand wheelchair, Rylance plays Hamm as nevertheless very mobile from the waist up, contorting in his chair like a stubborn weed that is trying to grow around annoyingly heavy rocks. His extreme fluctuation in vocal projection feels at times too abrupt and obstructs the music and potency of Beckett’s dialogue. Simon McBurney as Clov, on the other hand, gets off to a rip-roaring start with a hilariously executed physical sequence, made funnier by his character’s apparent forgetfulness, which leads to multiple painstaking repetitions. Repeatedly climbing a ladder while accommodating a gammy leg in order to see out of the high windows, McBurney (who also directs this production) immediately captures the futility of Clov’s now fading existence. Popping out of two dustbins are Hamm’s parents: Tom Hickey as Nagg and Miriam Margolis as Nell, the latter who is like a dopey fly, very occasionally buzzing, but essentially preparing itself for death. By contrast, Ned fizzes with angry life, rotating furiously in his bin like a toy that has been wound up too tight and barking in frustration at Hamm.

All of the play’s characters have mobility issues, which lead to a powerlessness and dependence on others. As Clov says, he can’t sit down and Hamm can’t stand up. Interestingly though, it is only Clov who has no real dependence on the other characters – he brings biscuits for the bin folk and attends to the blind Hamm as a carer. He also provides the only commentary on the outside world from his ladder vantage point, and so slants the perception of the other characters. Therefore, the only dependence that Clov suffers from is psychological and, as a result, the most puzzling, as he himself acknowledges: why does he continue to obey Hamm? Clov gives no answer.

With this in mind, I felt the psychological complexity is absent from McBurney’s performance, though he is undoubtedly endearing and, at times, breaks into tantrums of frustration. Why do people stay if they don’t have to? Most of Beckett’s characters suffer from this phenomenon; the others are physically stuck in situations and simply cannot go.

This is a well-attempted production, in which the cavernous stage of the Duchess Theatre is effectively used to capture the absurd cesspit in which son keeps father and mother in dustbins, while he pisses himself in his chair, tells anecdotes about his past, and begs for his painkillers. But the two main actors need to stop over-acting and have a deeper investigation into what Beckett is actually doing in this notoriously difficult play. That way, we may come a little closer to understanding it.

November 18, 2009

Vantastic and Lobster, Oval House Theatre

4 stars

Joe Orton meets Alan Ayckbourn may be the most fitting way of describing Russell Barr’s writing, here on show in a double bill at the Oval House Theatre. The two plays, Vantastic and Lobster, which are loosely connected, are a chilling, disturbed and deeply funny insight into human loneliness and the ways in which people cope. In Vantastic, two campervans are parked up alongside one another. One houses ageing parents Pam and Peter (Eileen Nicholas and Richard Syms) and stuffed dog Shaggy in a nappy. Shacked up in the other is their daughter Scratchitt (beautifully played by Clare Grogan) and her gay boyfriend Doddie (Richard Flood). Outside is an intruder (Leo Richardson), a simple, orphaned teenage boy who wants to reconstruct the family he has never had and invades each caravan in turn appealing for a surrogate family. The direction is superb and the acting incredibly good. Nicholas and Syms make a cracking married couple with the forty year itch, Peter enduring his wife’s continual harassment with gritted teeth and a vague intellectual superiority; Pam patronising Peter’s misguided life choices and his lack of responsibility with shrill melodrama. The family dynamics are recognisable and – although extreme as Pam repeatedly voices her disappointment at Scratchitt’s early menopause and subsequent ‘dry fanny’ – are presented with a light touch. There are also moments of touching intimacy, for example when Pam screws up the Daily Telegraph that Peter has been desperately burying himself in and his face crumples in motion with his paper. Likewise, Scratchitt’s childlessness and lack of love leads her to crave a cuddle with a stranger. The comedy is beautifully handled; the pathos and violence managed with impressive restraint.

The second item of the double bill, Lobster, which the audience shuffle upstairs for, is less funny as Barr plunges us into a surreal world of screwing and beating up grandmas, self-harm, and voyeuristic homosexuality. Yet his confidant grasp of the absurd and ability to diffuse uncomfortable situations with mundane lines such as, ‘Now, I’m going for a slash’, rescues this play from simply being disturbed and morbid. Tobias (Richard Flood) lives with his gran, Chatty (Eileen Nicholas) in her hermetic home. The outside world is both alluring and frightening, and consequently, Tobias and Chatty’s life together becomes more defensively interwoven while they talk about travel and favourite holiday destinations. Like Orton’s Kath in Entertaining Mr Sloane, Chatty harbours both sexual and a maternal feelings for her grandson and the two are uncomfortably mingled. Chatty’s epileptic boy hostage whom she victimises (Leo Richardson) soon becomes of romantic interest to Tobias and a power struggle commences between Chatty and the boy. All the time, a real-life lobster, whom Tobias invests a great interest in, fidgets away in his tank.

It’s a nicely judged play and production, with the moments of harsh intensity finely balanced with quieter moments of reflections on life. The characters have little contextual geography and so rare glimpses into their past act as tantalising nuggets of information that we interpret to try and account for their dysfunction in the present. It is nicely staged in an awkwardly elongated space, and the frequent distance between Chatty and Tobias only heightens the tension as their eyes emit angry and passionate laser rays to one another.

This is encouraging writing from a relatively (as of yet) unknown playwright and his flair for dialogue is clearly on show. It is equally owing to the fantastic troupe of actors that director Luke Kernaghan has on board that Barr’s writing is able to shine to its full potential.