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.

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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.

March 2023

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