All entries for November 2011
November 04, 2011
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.
November 03, 2011
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.
Douglas Hodge: a drunken jelly