March 20, 2011

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.

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