All entries for Sunday 20 March 2011

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.

March 2011

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