Author Archives: Louise Penn

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan.

The Wider Earth (Natural History Museum)

yyTZMlqQ 3

Marcello Cruz and Bradley Foster. Photo credit Mark Douet.

Last month I was lucky enough to be invited to a pre-preview of some scenes from The Wider Earth, together with a Q&A with the cast and a chance to meet some of the amazing puppets from the Dead Puppet Society up close.

Now the production is fully open, and I’ve been invited back to report on the finished article.  The Jerwood Gallery at the Natural History Museum has been turned into a theatre which seats roughly 300 people in a mix of floor and raised seating, and the rotating set we saw in previews has now been augmented by lighting, a backdrop for animation, and an immersive soundscape.

3s8U74Ew 2.jpeg

Bradley Foster. Photo credit Mark Douet.

David Morton’s play has previously played in Australia, following periods of mentoring  in Cape Town with Handspring (creators of the puppets used in War Horse), and further planning in New York.  There is a cast of seven and a number of puppets with personality – including an iguana, butterflies, birds (small and large), fish, armadillos, a duck-billed platypus, and two large Galapagos tortoises.

Bradley Foster, as the young Charles Darwin leaving the chance of theological study behind to join a round-the-world voyage on HMS Beagle, is the only member of the cast who doesn’t have puppeteer duties; the rest (some of which have previous experience in the area) do well in making these curious creatures come to life.  It’s also his first leading role and he does well in portraying the young man who grows in knowledge and understanding as he sails.

As we move from Cambridge, where Darwin makes a friend of the Professor (Andrew Bridgmont) who can see his quality and inspires his curiosity, to the Manor where Darwin senior (Ian Houghton) only sees the priesthood as destination for his wayward child, the hill where Darwin promises fidelity and marriage to his beloved Emma (Melissa Vaughan), and onto the ship, we watch as sketches build the landscape behind the stage.

TBkPS93w 4

Melissa Vaughan, Andrew Bridgmont, Matt Tait, Bradley Foster, Ian Houghton, Jack Parry-Jones. Photo credit Mark Douet.

Once on the voyage, captained by the religious and constrained FitzRoy (Jack Parry-Jones), Darwin starts to gain a new understanding of the world around him and the power of nature, as each island landing brings new creatures to study, with their modifications to suit their landscape.  The Revd Matthews (also Houghton), who is on a mission back to Tierra del Fuego to bring Christianity to the “savages”, sees only the power of the Lord, and Jemmy (Marcello Cruz), bought and paid for, only sees a need for returning to his home.  John Clements Wickham (Matt Tait), the second in command on the ship, attempts to be a voice of reason between opposing factions.

The Wider Earth does not assume to give answers about the power of creation, but sows the seeds for the lifetime work Charles Darwin undertook after stepping back on British soil after his five years on the HMS Beagle.  His theories of evolution and of natural selection started by studying beetles, rocks and fauna of unfamiliar terrains, but his account of his work on the Beagle brought him fame and attention.

WzuYVf3w 1.jpeg

Cast of The Wider Earth. Photo credit Mark Douet.

If I had a small quibble about this show, it is that just occasionally the sound piped through speakers around the Gallery overpower the actors on stage, but this only affects a couple of scenes, and I don’t think anything of the sense of the production is lost.  The puppets can be clearly seen and appreciated due to clever lighting and the gifted manipulation of their cast operators, and the story is interesting and easily understandable, even to younger audience members (10 and above).

The programme (£7) is full of information on the genesis of The Wider Earth, and the journey it has taken so far.  David Morton skillfully directs his own work, and the music by Lior and Tony Buchen fits in with the nature theme without feeling superfluous or inappropriate.

The Wider Earth runs at the Natural History Museum until the 30 December 2018; you can purchase tickets here.


Company (Gielgud Theatre)

This reimagining of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical about a 35-year old man, Bobby, who juggles freedom with the wish of his married friends that he finds a lasting romance, makes Bobby become Bobbie, a woman dealing with the same preoccupations.

company 1

Rosalie Craig’s Bobbie now has three boyfriends (Theo, Andy and P.J.) who have the trio You Could Drive A Person Crazy in Act One.  Of the five couples who interfere with her life in the name of friendship, one are a gay couple planning their wedding, leading to the hilarity of Getting Married Today where a neurotic “Jamie” (Jonathan Bailey) panics about whether dependable Paul (Alex Gaumond) is the right man for him.

Sarah and Harry (Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes) constantly belittle each other, but in here there is love, too, as Harry explains in one of the great songs of the score, Sorry/Grateful, joined by David and Larry.  Sarah is perhaps borderline bulimic, and Harry is a drunk, but their marriage can stand it because “everything’s different, nothing’s changed, only maybe slightly rearranged”.

Susan and Peter (Daisy Maywood and Ashley Campbell) find they are far better divorced than married; while Joanne and Larry (Patti LuPone and Ben Lewis) keep going as she is irritated by him and he is fascinated by her.  In the original show, Joanne propositions Bobby, but here she offers her husband to Bobbie under a sugar daddy arrangement, which didn’t work in the same way for me.

company 2

Patti LuPone as Joanne

Jenny and David (Jennifer Saayeng and Richard Henders) are square and settled, and humour Bobbie by smoking the joint she offers them, clearly signalling they are grown up enough to move on from all that, and she isn’t.

Bobbie wears killer red heels throughout, and we see her being used by geeky Theo (Matthew Seadon-Young), who decides she isn’t marriage material, and by self-obsessed P.J. (George Blagden), who sees the universe revolving around him (Another Hundred People) rather than making any meaningful connection with others.

A night with dumb Andy (Richard Fleeshman) – formerly April the air stewardess – who has to fly off to Barcelona gives rise to a couple of surreal scenes, with the husbands of Bobbie’s friends visiting her bedroom while she is in coitus, and a dream sequence of many mirrored Bobbies and what could happen if she marries any of her three boyfriends.

The set is excellent, starting with a small lightbox that grows into a line of interconnected rooms, and some use of a box which rises from and sinks below stage level.  Bobbie’s birthday balloons, too, become as small as in Alice in Wonderland, or are large as to be suffocating.

company 3

Gavin Spokes as Harry, Rosalie Craig as Bobbie, Mel Giedroyc as Sarah

The songs do not survive the transformation intact: I was particularly sorry to lose the original, poignant lyrics of Someone Is Waiting, an Act One solo for Bobbie who considers how a combination of her friends may make the perfect mate for her.  The same problem hampers Getting Married Today and Barcelona (mistaking Andy’s name for Freddy instead of April’s for June is not quite as funny).

There are compensations, though. Patti LuPone’s The Ladies Who Lunch lives up to expectations, Rosalie Craig’s Being Alive, which closes the show, is moving and effective, and the ensemble number Side by Side is livened up by a farcical bit of movement work.

I can’t get on board with the praise that has been lavished on this production to the point that “the original may never be done again”.

It’s an interesting experiment, and Marianne Elliott is to be congratulated on making it such fun and relevant to middle-aged women (and Sondheim himself for allowing and facilitating the changes to his exquisitely crafted songs), but for me, it didn’t quite come off.

company 4

This remains my favourite Sondheim from a songs alone point of view, but I find that Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd all have a more coherent storyline.  Company remains extremely cynical about relationships, and where for a man the concept of Have I Got a Girl [Guy] For You seemed acceptable laddish banter, when sung by women to another woman it just seems a bit sad.

Photograph credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

Company runs at the Gielgud Theatre until the 22 December 2018.

 


Why theatre is therapy for me

small theatres.pnglarge theatres.jpg

Regular readers will know that currently I am living with anxiety, stress and depression, which had restricted my ability to engage in my working life and left me taking each day at a time until I get back to my full strength again.  I have written about it here and here.

However, I am also a blogger and one of my primary interests is the theatre.

From my first trips with school to the Oldham Coliseum, through years living in Yorkshire and taking advantage of theatres across the North, I have always loved the escapism of the footlights (but as an observer, never a performer).

Oldham - main image

My first theatre trips were at the Oldham Coliseum

I’m lucky enough to live in London, which has over two hundred theatres, West End, off-West End, fringe and pop-up.  Whether your taste is the big, tourist-trap musical or the above-the-pub experimental, the huge organisations (National, Old Vic, Barbican) or the exciting stuff in the smaller houses, there is something here for you.  London is also home to several suburban theatres in its surrounding towns, which host travelling tours.

This is not the post where I will discuss theatre pricing, although that may be something I return to at a later date.

No, this is about how going to the theatre has had a positive effect on my mental health.  How seeing others performing in something created for the masses lifts my spirits and keeps me calm and relaxed.  How having an hour, two, three, to think about something else other than the triggers that make me jumpy and unhappy, is the best non-medical intervention money can buy.

workplace image

Image from PR Week

For me, live performance – and I will stretch this to concerts to some extent, although sometimes they are too crowded and noisy for me – is an escape, and in building this blog over the past few years I have been able to concentrate for short periods to review and reflect on what I have seen.  Even shows which are dark and challenging can offer something to a brain which is slightly off-kilter; it doesn’t have to be something silly which brings nothing but laughter.

I do plan my visits, though.  I usually attend theatres I have been to before, or stick to the centre of the city.  If I do venture further out I plan my journey, make sure I know where I am going, and always get there at least half an hour before so I can get my bearings, take a deep breath, and get settled.

giphy

Lonely Anxiety – by Michelle Porucz

If I can, and I’m on my own, I try to talk to people around me in the auditorium, although being in London that’s not always an option, and I have become acutely aware that there may be other people in attendance who are just as anxious as me.  So sitting in silence and just looking around the place is fine. Now and again my lovely husband comes along with me, and then I’m a bit braver, maybe going to somewhere without all that double-checking, and just purely enjoying myself.

I love the atmosphere of a theatre. What the outside looks like, how the show is promoted on the frontage.  The lights in the evening, the bustle outside in the day.  The foyers, the staff, the pictures, the programme.  How people act before the house is open. How everyone always grumbles about the loos even when they are fairly palatial (ENO Coliseum, take a bow).  The nooks and crannies of larger venues – the thrill of finding a new corner of a new level at the National, the weird little rooms around the basement stalls of Victorian buildings.

Once you’re in the auditorium: sneaking a peak at the set on stage, watching as the levels fill up, the scents and sounds and sights of a unique new audience, checking out the seat and the leg-room, the arm-rests, the strangers who will be neighbours for however long the magic lasts, the busy ushers who have eyes like hawks.  The half-darkness in many houses well before the show gets going.

What’s the stage like? A traditional proscenium? A thrust stage? In the round? What props are visible? What’s the lighting like? Is anyone on the stage already, and what are they doing? Is there music playing before the show starts? Working out the sight-line (especially if a larger head is directly in front!).  Putting the baggage of life out in the real world away under the seat, working out where to put the programme, having a quick check for the nearest exit at the end of the show.

All this helps to calm the anxious mind and push any difficult thoughts away.  For the next hour, two, three, my reality is what’s showing on that stage in front of me, and those people who are performing are not the people who are listed in the programme, but characters who are taking this journey with us and for us.  I have always been fascinated by actors and that ability to inhabit another body and soul.  Actors I have followed for years across different roles and shows, or those I am seeing for the first time, and there is always the chance that one of them will settle in the memory forever, for what they do on the stage, now.

31d2f5a44a5ced7f4b8ec7611ac9f2f3

Some shows leave you laughing, some leave you crying, and some have a touch of both.  When you’re unwell, and your emotions have been squashed a bit by medication or by something that really doesn’t feel quite right, being able to connect on whatever level with the theatre is invaluable.  Thinking, talking, reading and writing about it later helps that feeling even more.

If something is rattling around in my mind, the best way to stop it for me is watching a play or musical on the stage (I also watch lots of films too, and they have the advantage of being able to revisit as often as you want, for far less than the outlay for two visits to the theatre), but the theatre has an immediacy and is being shared, just that one time, by those who are present at that time, on that day.

Without the escape and cocoon of the stage I would be far further back along the road to recovery.  Even if I have to take that two steps back now and again, the show pulls me back and gives me strength.  And that’s why it is special, and valuable, and essential, for me.


Wise Children (Old Vic)

Stage view from the audience

I remember reading Angela Carter’s novel about the dancing girls ‘The Lucky Chances’, Nora and Dora, a few years ago and was very intrigued to see how it would be adapted.

I know Emma Rice’s work from her two decades at Kneehigh, including their production of another Carter work, Nights at the Circus, which I saw in Leeds in 2006.

I knew from this it was definitely possible for Wise Children to be adapted effectively. Rice now leads her new company, also entitled Wise Children, but this initial show – which has its press night on the 17 October – has a familiar feel and the creative flair we have come to expect.

Doras, Noras, Grandma and Lady Atalanta at home

When we meet Dora Chance, on her 75th birthday, just five minutes older than her sister Nora, she – played by Gareth Snook – tells us about their home before a party invitation arrives from the great actor Sir Melchior Hazard, their father, now a hundred years old but he has never acknowledged them.

In planning for the party we see the twins’ history played out for us from conception to toddling tappers, from puberty and first love, from disappointments to butterflies.

Young Dora, Grandma, Young Nora

This is a piece of dark, honest drama with period songs, a heavy dose of magical realism, and disturbing undertones. The book actually went a step further with obsession and implied incest, but this show tiptoes around that to some extent.

We meet the twins portrayed through three sets of actors, and casting is gender neutral with the teenage Nora and elderly Dora both played by men. Sometimes more than one set are on stage at once, which is effective and emotionally engaging.

Rehearsal footage with Young Dora and Young Nora

The Chance girls are brought up by their dead mother’s landlady, ‘Grandma’, and are taken care of by their father’s freewheeling brother Perry, who spends money on them but a strange relationship with both is implied, and there are long absences when he isn’t around.

Melchior, now married with frightful ginger twins of his own, reveres them but treats his older girls are curiosities only. Once they have moved from end of the pier jobs with Max Miller-lite comic Gorgeous George, they join their father in Shakespeare, but does he want them for themselves or for their odd dance-strip routine?

Nora grows to be an outwardly confident glamourpuss, sleeping around and hiding her feelings, while Dora stays in the background. They share a boyfriend, gifted to Dora by Nora when they hit eighteen, and continue to live as two halves of the same coin.

A toy theatre, faulty light bulbs, a caravan, orange scarves, an animated flight across London, and doubled up casting helps pull out the shady glamour of the footlights and the misunderstandings of family, sex and secrets.

This adaptation is joyous, always interesting, and even with a few remaining fluffs, mistakes and longuers which will probably be gone by press night, this is a stunning gem of a show with a hard working ensemble and an accomplished distellation of a complex book.

Many characters have been snipped and storylines slightly altered, but from the time we meet the Chances as puppet dolls through to old age, as they get – and miss – their own chances and where the living ultimately walk among the dead, we are walking with them.

Gareth Snook is surprisingly tender as the ageing Dora, and Omari Douglas is fantastic as the tarty mid-period showgirl Nora. Melissa James (showgirl Dora) and Etta Murfitt (elderly Nora) may be less showy, but it is interesting to follow the trajectory of these girls/women as their lives evolve.

Long-time Rice collaborator Mike Shepherd does well in a variety of roles, ultimately becoming the older Perry, and you can almost imagine young Sam Archer who plays Perry in his prime may have ended up this way; less convincing is the transformation of Ankur Bahl as Melchoir into Paul Hunter, who previously mimicked those smutty Miller jokes.

Mike Shepherd in rehearsal

Patrycja Kujawska is excellent as both Lady Atalanta and the boy shared by the growing twins; Katy Owen is a domineering Grandma with a soft heart, a lot of pride, and a fondness for stout, and it is fun to see the acting of Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud as the young twins Dora and Nora, such a contrast to the dreadful Imogen and Saskia.

Playing out after curtain call with ‘My Heart Belongs To Daddy’ underlines the clever use of songs throughout – not simply the period pieces but also work by Louis Jordan and Cyndi Lauper. The greaseprint is thick but it can’t cover the cracks.

Well done to the company for hitting the sexual complexities of this novel, and in making a moment or two genuinely shocking even when the story paints a smile.

Wise Children is a special show which is well worth your time with sparkles, grotty dressing rooms, mirrors and a little bit of ‘Electric Avenue’. You will go out with a song in your heart and a tear in your eye.

Rehearsal photos by Steve Tanner. Production photos from the Old Vic Twitter account.


Eugenius (The Other Palace)

eugenius 2

This frenetic new musical from Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins takes its inspiration from comic books, 80s music and TV, and the perils of both childhood and Hollywood.

It makes a triumphant return to The Other Palace in advance of a well-deserved transfer to the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End at the end of October. (Update – as of 11 October this is no longer happening).

Eugenius tells the story of Eugene (Rob Houchen), a self-described geek who lives with his father and spends his spare time creating the story of Tough Man, Super Hot Lady, and the Evil Lord Hector.

His friends Janey (Laura Baldwin, previously on stage at The Other Palace in Big Fish) and Feris (Daniel Buckley, very funny) are equally viewed as odd by their peers: she has a secret crush on Eugene but he doesn’t seem to know it, and Feris is so consumed by teenage sexual fantasies he even laminates the comics he reads.

eugenius1

Feris tries to impress the cool gang at school.

When a Hollywood producer’s lackey, Theo (Scott Paige, enjoyably camp) makes a trip into Eugene’s school to look for new ideas, Tough Man is pitched and then within a flash, taken to the city of dreams to be made into a film for Powermad Productions under the direction of Lex Hogan (Alex Bourne).

The trouble is, Hogan’s vision for the story leans more towards fish people and spandex airheads than the tale invisaged by young Eugene.

There’s another problem, too. Evil Lord Hector (Neil McDermott, EastEnders actor turned stage bad boy) is somehow not a product of Eugene’s imagination, but he’s real and after heading through space for years with only a perpetually cheery robot by his side (Kevin, voiced at the performance I saw by Mark Hamill), sees the film in progress and misidentifies the doltish actor Gerhard (Simon Thomas) as the real Tough Man.

eugenius 4

Super Hot Lady, Evil Lord Hector, Tough Man – photo by Scott Rylander

Hector channels a fair bit of Rik Mayall in The Young Ones, while the actor playing the film Hector may just be based just a little on Laurence Olivier, but once the evil one lands on Earth he causes havoc for Hogan’s production.

Carrie, the actress playing Super Hot Lady (Emily Tierney, who has a knock-out dance number), almost falls for the adolescent pimply charms of the portly Feris, while Eugene learns that what’s most important in his life isn’t necessarily the need to “kiss ass”.

eugenius 3

The company of Eugenius

This hard-working company are flat out in fast-paced dance routines, but also give some love and heart to the most proposterous of characters.

It’s hard to single out any one member of the cast but apart from the main principals, I’d like to give a nod to Dillon Scott-Lewis who is a lithe and energetic dancer, and to Tom Senior’s Shock Jock.

The remainder of the cast are Christopher Ragland, Titus Rowe, Laurence Alex Tranter, Ben Darcy, Lauren Cancannon, Amy West, Sasha Wareham, and Alison Arnopp (Space Diva). And not to forget “the voice of Brian Blessed”, which is used to good effect.

With fun songs, audience participation, and silly cultural references, this show is a hard one to dislike. It has bags of heart and soul, and a vibrant message to all those grappling with growing up and life’s ambitions: “don’t shoot for the stars: shoot higher”.

Update: on 11th October it was announced that Eugenius will NOT be transferring to the West End due to the “withdrawal of a key investor”.


Wasted (Southwark Playhouse)

I’m rather late to the party as Wasted closes tonight, the new rock musical about the Brontë siblings, who lived in the desolate moorland of Haworth, growing as creative forces who became – the three surviving sisters, anyway – novelists who are still talked about nowadays, women who wrote about topics such as obsession, adultery, and domestic violence which were considered unfeminine in the 19th century.

20181006_1423158002294255023850814.jpg

We first meet Charlotte (Natasha Barnes) in 1855, in the last year of her life, introducing herself as “Mrs Arthur Nicholls, also Currer Bell, and Charlotte Brontë”, and carrying the child whose birth will kill her and itself.  Nicholls had long been the curate of Dr Patrick Brontë, parson and father of Charlotte and her sisters – Maria and Elizabeth, who died young, Emily (Siobhan Athwal) and Anne (Molly Lynch) – and her brother, Branwell (Matthew Jacobs Morgan).

The four surviving Brontë children are desperate to escape the stifling world of the parsonage and the bleak surroundings (Stuck in Haworth), and retreat into development of private worlds, which they document obsessively in mini-magazines.  Their refrain “We have to work, but we want to write” leads to their finding jobs away from home in young adulthood: while Branwell still dreams of being “a painter … a writer … a flautist … something” (I Am Gonna Be …), his sisters become teachers (Charlotte and Emily go to Brussels) and a governess (Anne goes to Thorpe Hall, near York).

The events at these places of work will inform the later work of Charlotte, who based her novel Villette (not her first to be rejected, as Wasted says: that was The Professor) on her infatuation with schoolmaster M Heger; and Anne, who turned her experience into her novel Agnes Grey.  Branwell joins Anne at Thorpe Hall and starts an affair with the lady of the house, and her eventual rejection of him turns him to drink and drugs (Laudanum My Love), which eventually hasten his death in 1848, shortly before sisters Emily, then Anne, die of consumption.

20181006_1915382592412985407354812.jpg

Emily, Anne, Branwell and Charlotte

This sequence of events, plus the development of all three sisters into gifted poets, then accomplished novelists, as the “Three Bells” (Currer, Ellis and Acton), is presented within the structure of a rock musical which manages to be clever, witty, inspired, and heartbreaking.  In the music of Christopher Ash and the lyrics of Carl Miller the story of the family is brought to life, including the infamous and dismissive letter from Robert Southey to Charlotte, Emily’s love for walks with her dog (a clever use of beatboxing to invoke the pup in My Soulmate), and Branwell’s sense of being invisible alongside his sister.

bronte

Branwell painted himself out of his painting of his three sisters

With twenty-seven songs (including two variations and one reprise) across three and a half hours, there is bound to be an element of hit and miss, but for me this was simply a matter of audibility of lyrics in a couple of the heavier songs. The score is mainly sharp and varied, and the choreography is well-done, as is the use of microphone cables, paper, speakers, and metal cases as props.  We are really looking at a bare wooden thrust stage with four performers, and a four person band at the back, but it becomes alive with activity, plot and performance.

However some songs – White Violets (a duet between Charlotte and Branwell, where they both contemplate finding first love), No-One to Marry for Miles (a witty song for Anne to bemoan the lack of eligible chaps in Yorkshire), (Ex)ordinary Woman (a powerhouse number for Charlotte and her sisters to showcase their heroines and feminist stories), Before My Time (a bit of fun for Goth Emily) and The Story of Mrs Collins (an eventual rock-out number for Anne about a woman who surely inspired her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) – stand out and are memorable in their own right.

Barnes is the stand-out performer, with an enviable set of pipes and a good grasp of the elder sister who watches, grieves, and eventually “wastes” her life on marriage to the dull curate (“the wrong one”, as her siblings remind her, referring to the choice facing her creation, Jane Eyre).  Athwal may overdo the eye-rolling and wildness of Emily, but she is tempered by the mild Lynch’s Anne.

Branwell may get the worst of the bargain here, being described in the programme as the “Pete Best” of his Beatles family.  That Morgan makes him likeable even when mimicking an injection of drugs, or in attempting to silence his sisters as he is the “genius” of the family shows a gift in acting, although dismissing the Brontë brothers as “talentless” and his work as “crap” feels unnecessarily cruel.

An excellent and thought-provoking new musical, nevertheless.

 


Antony and Cleopatra (National Theatre, Olivier)

Simon Godwin’s epic new production of the Shakespeare play of love between the Roman warrior Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra takes up residence at the National Theatre with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as the ill-fated, middle-aged lovers.

ntaandc2018jp_10824

Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo – photo by Johan Persson

We first find the vain Cleopatra by her opulent pool, with her handmaidens Charmian (Gloria Obiyano) and Iras (Georgia Landers).  She is hot for the soldier who is torn by his passion for her and his duty at home, where his wife Flavia has caused division and dissent before her death.

His decision to leave seems to be an act of bravado to impress his ‘Egypt’ rather than anything in supplication to the ambitious Caesar (Tunji Kasim) and the drunken Lepidus (Nicholas Le Provost), with whom he forms a triumvirate of power.

As is usual with the Bard, events are telescoped into shorter timelines: this period of time lasted ten years in historical record.  Antony, newly widowed, marries Caesar’s ambitious sister, Octavia (Hannah Morrish), and settles into the power he will eventually ditch to return to the bosom of Cleopatra, making her Empress to his over-reaching ego.

tunji_kasim_hannah_morrish_in_antony_cleopatra

Tunji Kasim and Hannah Morrish – photo by Johan Persson

The best supporting perfomances come from Tim McMullan (the loyal Enobarbus), Katy Stephens (a gender-swapped Agrippa), Fisayo Akinade (Eros, who excels in one amusing scene as a messenger and is tragic at his final hour) and Nick Sampson (schoolmaster Euphronius), although, for a change, most of the cast demonstrate an affinity with the blank verse and its meaning.

The sets by Hildegard Bechtler take full advantage of the Olivier’s revolve, with at least five changes including scenes which have characters rising and lowering into the depths of the drum; while the music by Michael Bruce and lighting by Tim Lutkin do much to give the sense of court opulence and the grime and ritual of the battlefield.

One fatal flaw for me, though, was the jarring change of pace when Antony’s final moments were played for laughs, which left the final act a sadly unmoving experience, despite the presence of the real snake and the dignity of Cleopatra’s exit on her monument.

sophie_okonedo_in_antony_cleopatra2.jpg

Sophie Okonedo – photo by Johan Persson

Watch for the scope and scale of this project, and for the chemistry (and age-appropriateness) of Fiennes and Okonedo, who are glorious together, but also enjoy the small moments and performances which can fill out a play of this length – three hours and thirty minutes, which flies past.

 

 


The Talking Pictures TV Reel Streets Ealing Film Locations tour

On perhaps the wettest day to hit West London for weeks, we arrived at Osterley Park to find a Talking Pictures TV banner and a small marquee where we could pick up our brochure and picnic lunch.  It was lovely to finally meet Sarah Cronin, who does so much with her family to programme the weird and wonderful (and sometimes both) film and TV fare of Talking Pictures TV.

On a packed Routemaster (we discovered later from a friendly former bus driver that it had been a green bus in service, but now painted red), we set out for a three-hour tour of locations across Ealing (and a bit of Hounslow).

img-20180923-wa00005551225074623022667.jpg

Our bus and companion for the morning.

The route in our book wasn’t quite the route we followed – the driver decided to miss out Hanwell and visited Ealing Broadway a little earlier than planned – and the loudspeaker on the top deck was sadly inaudible until the final hour of the tour, but as a local couple my husband and I were able to roughly follow the progress of the tour from Osterley to Heston, to Southall, West Ealing, Ealing Broadway, South Ealing, Brentford then back to the park.

Highlights along the way included former cinemas the Palace Southall, Odeon Southall, and the former sites of the Walpole and the Empire in Ealing, and locations where “Richard Attenborough caught the bus in Seance on a Wet Afternoon“, “Benny Hill came past this building towards the camera in Who Done It“, and the gate “depicted in The Lavender Hill Mob“, to mention but three.

We spotted the former homes of legendary comics Sid James and Arthur Haynes (both on Gunnersbury Road, with blue plaques), and the alleyway used in Run for Your Money, as well as the corner where George Formby once walked in It’s in the Air and where the policemen marched in Carry on Constable.

Of course the main attraction was Ealing Studios, where so many great films were created and shot, from the early days of Will Barker in 1902 through to the present day.  This is currently the focus of an attempt to create a Walk of Fame to celebrate those stars and crew who made films across the borough.

20180923_0948404565253469938919004.jpg

The tour brochure.

The booklet utilised film stills and brief descriptions, but I would have added a simple map of the route so it could be retraced by locals or more easily understood for those new to the borough.  It was also an ambitious route for the time and traffic, even on a Sunday morning, so future tours may wish to bear that in mind.  However, care and time had clearly been lavished on this event.

A tasty packed lunch of crisps, a cheese and tomato sandwich, and a traditional scone with clotted cream and jam (which we took home with us), plus a glass of bubbly on arrival and a Roses chocolate en route, was much appreciated, as were the two rest stops (although I think Southall Park disappointed with the loos closed!).

Our £45 tickets also included a tour of Osterley House, but we decided to call it a day after our mystery tour, planning to use the booklet on future travels around Ealing (and to tick off any films listed which we have not seen yet).

20180923_134152706731705576068148.jpg

Our yummy packed lunch.

Roll on next March, when the Renown Film Festival takes place in St Albans.


Sylvia (Old Vic)

Note that the entire run of this new musical is now being classed as previews, and that the Old Vic are handing out notices stating “it has radically evolved into what promises to be a genuinely thrilling full-blown musical … the performance … is considerably longer and in a more raw state than the creative team and The Old Vic would ever have planned … what we are sharing with you today is a work in progress”.

Hero_Landscape_SYLVIA_The_Old_Vic.jpg

The Pankhursts

There has been drama right from the start of the run, when the original first preview was changed into an open dress rehearsal, which was then cancelled part-way through as actress Genesis Lynea (who played Sylvia Pankhurst) was taken ill.  Her understudy, Maria Omakinwa, has now taken over the leading role for the remainder of this short run, with a minimum of rehearsal time.  Hats off to her.

Running at more than three hours, including interval, this show needs a fair amount of brutal trimming, as well as a focus which perhaps does not include too much stage time for Sylvia’s sister Christabel (Witney White).  I was also unconvinced about the relationship portrayed between Sylvia and the Labour Party leader Keir Hardie: this has been rumoured in some accounts but is in no way confirmed.  More problematic is the brief reference to a lesbian relationship between Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, again a rumour which the writers should have the nerve to expand upon if they wish to do justice to it.

Kate Prince, who heads the ZooNation company, and who is behind the book and lyrics for this musical, has tried to address the issue of casting black actresses as Emmeline, Christabel, and Sylvia Pankhurst, and black actors as Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George, in the name of diversity.  It feels a similar casting quirk that Hamilton has had success with, as is the use of hip hop music and dancing, but I felt that the character of Jennie Churchill, Winston’s mother as a bossy Red Hot Momma (although Jade Hackett blew the roof off the place) was particularly problematic.

There’s just too much going on, and even as someone who knows the story of the struggle for Women’s Suffrage, I felt a little lost and bored at times.  The sequence with Emily Wilding Davison and her death at the Epsom Derby is 1913 was lost in confusion, although the song which followed immediately after was a high point.  The prison-based depiction of force-feeding was rushed and flawed, and short-changes the issue which went on for more than five years and caused declining health to many women.  For a more in-depth treatment of both I can recommend the television serial Shoulder to Shoulder.

Making the opposition, and particularly Churchill, comedic, is also an aspect which doesn’t quite come off.  Here you have on one side the measured performances from Omakinwa, from Beverley Knight as Emmeline, and from Carly Bawden as Mrs Churchill (Bawden also portrays Kenney), but then you have the over-broad ones from Delroy Atkinson as Churchill and, to some extent, from John Dagleish as Keir Hardie (with red scarf, tie and long socks proclaiming his political affiliation).

The songs are a mix of funk, soul and hip-hop, and the movement and dance sequences are certainly energetic and inspiring, right from the point that Elliotte Williams-N’Dure’s General Flora Drummond exorts the gathering to “make some noise”.  There are just too many songs, and as much as I enjoyed Clementine Churchill’s break-out letter to the newspaper, the letters from the Pankhurst siblings Christabel, Adela and Harry to their imprisoned sister, or Sylvia’s lovestruck memories of seeing Hardie as she grew up, they don’t really push the plot along.

I wanted to see and hear more about Sylvia Pankhurst, who is often hidden in the shadows of her more militant sister and mother, and what drove her to support the working woman’s cause.  I wanted to see more following her break from the WSPU.

As a woman from the same town as Annie Kenney, I was disappointed that she was simply there to make eyes as Christabel, when she had so much more to offer to the history of the movement. She was a strong working woman from a mill town who joined with the middle-class ladies: if you don’t want to give her that credit, don’t use the character.  The use of Ada to composite several women in the movement would allow one of Sylvia’s friends and mentors to be depicted instead of Kenney.

Ultimately this show is nowhere near ready for a full run, and although Omakinwa is doing a great job, she is still using the book heavily in the second act and reading her lines in key scenes including the aforementioned one of force-feeding and a two-header argument with her mother, which would have great power had she been interacting with Knight fully.

This show does have great potential, and has some excellent moments, but there are too many technical issues present at the moment, and too much going on to really focus on the story or engage with the characters, for this to be a true success.  However, I look forwatd to seeing how it evolves and whether it does have a future.

 


The Wider Earth (pre-preview, Natural History Museum)

It was a pleasure and a privilege to witness an extended scene from the new drama The Wider Earth this evening, along with an opportunity to ask questions to the actors and creatives as a group and individually.

In the planning for five years, this play about the young Charles Darwin has made the journey from Cape Town to London, via New York and Sydney, and marries puppetry, a revolving set, a busy and talented cast of seven (three of which were previously in the National Theatre smash-hit War Horse), and projected animations.

IteGOH6w

What we saw tonight was a set partly in situ in rehearsal mode, before it gets its masking, lighting rig, full staging, smoke effects, and all the bells and whistles.  We saw butterflies and a very personable iguana, and the seeds of a battle of wills between Bradley Foster’s Charles Darwin and Jack Parry-Jones’ Robert FitzRoy around the state of slaves from the British Empire.

Foster has a background in movement, having worked with Katie Mitchell at the Royal Opera House since graduating from drama school a couple of years ago: this is his first major leading role, and on this brief excerpt he looks very much like an actor to watch, engaging with the new creatures he finds on his HMS Beagle voyage with wonder, and unafraid to step up for injustice.

C62P42Qw

Bradley Foster as Charles Darwin

The remainder of the cast both act and perform as puppeteers, a role Melissa Vaughan (Emma Wedgewood, who became Darwin’s wife) describes as “difficult” and “terrifying”, although Marcello Cruz (Jemmy) describes the puppets as “part of the cast”, and the novice puppeteers among the actors speak of their willingness to learn new skills and add to their repertoire.

The creatives from the Dead Puppets Society, Nicholas Paine and David Morton, were mentored by War House puppet supremos Handspring, and have developed a show which has played Queensland, Sydney Opera House, and now, thanks to the ingenuity and contacts of producer Trish Wadley, it is set to open in the impressive Jerwood Gallery at the Natural History Museum.

At close quarters, the puppets are deeply impressive, and took life through computer programming and careful, thoughtful, human intervention.  The larger puppets take up to five cast members to animate (Perry-Jones described a sequence with a shark and a large sea creature which would glow with energy with full sound and lighting effects), the smaller, like the iguana we saw, develop their own personalities at the hands of one performer.

hXBwodXw

Image from the original Australian production

The Wider Earth opens on the 2nd October and is booking until the end of 2018.  It is a chance to see a unique type of theatre production in the stunning surroundings of the Victorian palace of curiosities which is the Natural History Museum.

 

 


ITV Playhouse: A Splinter of Ice (BFI Southbank)

splinter of ice

Ian Hendry (Tony) and Judy Loe (Clemence)

Fay Weldon’s absorbing play teams a small cast headed by Ian Hendry and Annette Crosbie to explore the problems of middle-aged marriages and the preoccupations of the younger generation.

Tony (Hendry) is a writer and TV personality who has been married to Joy (Crosbie) for twenty years. She is a brittle and bitter woman of forty who regrets not having a child, and her closest friend Bridget (Zena Walker), is also her biggest irritation.

Bridget, a ‘suburban housewife’ with a dull marriage and four children, ‘two with asthma’, and a couple of weeks away puts the smile back on her face when she has a fling with Tony’s agent, Jude (Norman Eshley).

In the meantime, we know that young Clemence (Judy Loe) has got herself pregnant from her affair with Tony, fifteen years her senior, and isn’t keen on keeping the baby. Throw in a bohemian girlfriend for Jude, Julia (Amber Kammer), a randy cat, generational attitudes towards love, commitment, and abortion, and you have a provocative drama which may not feel entirely contemporary in the 21st century, but which still engages audience empathy even if the majority of the characters are dreadful, self-obsessed, selfish and stagnant.

Hendry, Loe and Crosbie in particular shine as the unhappily married couple and the ‘slut’ who the wife first tolerates, then sees as a threat, then realises her usefulness. Walker’s frumpy mother lights up when a chance to relive her girlhood offers itself, while Eshley and Kammer are quietly obnoxious twenty-somethings abjecting themselves of any responsibility.

Utilising several extreme close-ups and some clever scenes with minimal dialogue, we see the unfolding plot from each point of view, and get a measure of what the future holds for each and every character.


DVD audit pt 4


Exit the King (National Theatre Olivier)

This classic absurdist black comedy by Ionesco is brought to the stage in a new version by Patrick Marber, and covers the last hour in the life of King Berenger (Rhys Ifans), who has devoted his life to pleasure and presided over the destruction of his kingdom to the point that some of them are liquifying where they stand, and his ministers drown in a distant river during the span of the play.

exit-the-king

He has been a cruel, unthinking tyrant to his people, and now, in his fifth century, it is time for him to die. No longer can he command the weather, his palace is cracking apart, and there is darkness across the land.

The only survivors at court are his two wives, sensible Marguerite (Indira Varma) and flighty Marie (Amy Morgan), who flank the King’s opulent throne with smaller ones of their own, a palace Guard (Derek Griffiths), a cleaning woman straight out of Acorn Antiques (Debra Gillett), and a Doctor who also doubles as court executioner in the manner of a jovial Mengele – smiling as he tortures and torments.

3185

Derek Griffiths and Indira Varma

Ifans is reminiscent of a blend of Spike Milligan and Lindsay Kemp in his wig and white face, a clown without a joke, a pathetic figure with visions of grandeur and divine right, and Anthony Ward’s design makes the most of the Olivier’s space and the famed drum revolve, with a hint of the old Pepper’s ghost trickery when it matters most.

112e772c-90de-11e8-9609-3d3b945e78cf.jpg

Amy Morgan and Rhys Ifans

A wickedly funny and unexpectedly moving piece of theatre, expertly directed by Marber and paced with comic touches (the small lecture theatre table that folds out of the King’s throne, the cupboard in the palace walls full of sweepers and brushes), this is a competent revival which deserves celebration.

Buy the acting edition of Exit the King at Amazon UK


The Lieutenant of Inishmore (Noel Coward Theatre)

event_media-banner_lrg

Martin McDonagh’s play is a black satire on the Irish Troubles, with the catalyst a small black cat by the name of Wee Thomas. We first meet said cat when his corpse is brought in by dumb Davey, who may or may not have ridden over him on a bicycle, caving his head in.

Trouble is, Wee Thomas doesn’t belong to Donny, but to his son, Mad Padraic, who doesn’t pause at ripping out men’s toenails or shooting them point-blank in the eye with a crossbow, but who cries like a baby to hear his cat is “off his food”, a deception Donny and Davey concoct to communicate the news of his death gently.

Farcical situations abound, from a strung-up torture victim trying to get away on his hands, a young idealist (Davey’s sister, and a girl sweet on Padriac) who shoots out cows eyes from a distance with an airgun as a protest against the meat trade, and an unfortunate cat called Sir Roger who has the indignity of being covered in shoe polish to pass for the deceased moggie.

4101

By the second half, guns are out, IRA ballads are sung, Padraic cuddles his cat while all around him, Donny and Davey are cutting up body parts, burning off fingerprints, and bashing out teeth.  It’s a joke-filled stream about highly-strung Irish cats, the quality of IRA bombs, splinter groups from splinter groups (anyone else think of The Life of Brian), the nutritional value of Frosties, and grudge-holding.

I first saw this play at its RSC debut in 2001, but couldn’t remember much about it.  It is absolutely hilarious and the ending is absolutely perfect, as Wee Thomas steals the show after all the carnage.

The characters are well-drawn, as Padraic wishes for a Free Ireland for men, women and cats, and appears to enjoy watching The House of Eliott, Mairead is a tough as a button but has an idealistic view of the cause, Davey becomes ever more hysterical, and Christy and his henchmen are stereotypical terrorist dolts.  Even James, in that one torture scene, makes a mark as despite his drug dealing he seems to love his cat Dominic and his ringworm.

img_0679

Charlie Murphy and Aidan Turner, rehearsal photograph

Starring Aidan Turner (Padraic), Denis Conway (Donny), Chris Walley (Davey), Charlie Murphy (Mairead), Brian Martin (James), Will Irvine (Christy), Julian Moore-Cook (Joey), and Daryl McCormack (Brendan).  All are excellent, but especially Turner (West End debut), Walley (stage debut following graduation from RADA), and Murphy (who made such an impact in the last series of Peaky Blinders).

Michael Grandage directs with a sure hand, balancing the gore and the comic – although the production slows a bit with an interval in what is just a 100 minute show – but I would have welcomed less scenes set at the front of the stage behind the tree-decorated curtain.  The play itself – written in 1993, but not staged for nine years, still has the power to shock and to intrigue, and it will most certainly make you laugh.  Even as a cat lover I could see the funny side of the whole business.

Buy the text of The Lieutenant of Inishmore from Amazon UK


Julie (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

Polly Stenham’s updated version of the Strindberg classic Miss Julie doesn’t quite come off despite the best efforts of its central trio of cast (Vanessa Kirby as Julie, Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jean, Thalissa Teixeira as Kristina).

Although the Second World War setting of Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie, which I saw in a television version around twenty years ago, worked well enough, bringing the story right up to date with the privileged white girl getting involved with the chauffeur (even if he’s black, as in this version) would not lead to the catastrophic ending in just one night; in fact no one would blink an eyelid, despite Julie stealing Jean from her only confidante, maid Kristina.

julie

Vanessa Kirby and Eric Kofi Abrefa

This production suffers from additional scenes set at the party, with dancing and drugging guests, which take up around ten minutes at the start of the play.  Much better to get straight into the meat of the play, with the neurotic Julie trying to break out on her birthday, to get away from the path which life has set for her.

Carrie Cracknell directs, and Tom Scutt designs, in a lighted box which only moves following the hard-hitting finale, the only bit which really connects on an emotional level through the whole play.  There is little sexual chemistry between Kirby and Abrefa, if anything he seems on the verge of being amused by her, but mainly bored.

The set, a kitchen suite into which cupboards the party-goers disappear, has potential (and reaches it, briefly, in the scene with the little bird), but doesn’t fit the sophisticated claustrophobia the original play requires, and which might have served Julie better in the Dorfman.

julie 2


The journey to being well again

A more personal post …

You may recall that in late April I shared my thoughts on my current health situation in a post entitled On black dogs, red mists, and blue Mondays.

It was my attempt to make sense of a crisis point in my mind and in my life which has led to my being off work since April, and to hopefully return in October. The expectation is clearly when I return to work I will be “well” and all will be as it was before, although after periods of physical illness caused by stress even before anxiety and depression kicked in, I knew that things had changed.

I want to engage with work in some degree, but I also want to be “well”. For me, that means my health has now taken a significant leapfrog over my career, and I wish to find a work-life balance that will help me progress through my recovery over the next few years; I believe strongly it will take as long as that to get back to the point where I was, in summer 2016, before I started worrying, not sleeping, crying at a drop of a hat, and feeling sick at heart at the prospect of heading out of the house and engaging with others.

While I’ve been off, the physical symptoms I experienced with IBS (painful cramps) and migraine, have diminished – not altogether gone, because a bad day can pitch me back – and my levels of anxiety and self-worth have slowly started to readjust to a more “normal” level.

Well, normal for me. I’ve been experimenting with mindfulness, CBT (on my own, as the local mental health unit’s phone support was poor), and seeing a private psychologist on the advice of occupational health. All this calms me. I’ve also been lucky that I can still find some pleasure in activities like films and theatre, our local zoo, music. I even found the original ms. of the poetry book I had published in 2000. This original version is good. I was a good writer. One of these days I will share this book with you.

Capture.JPG

Self care brings magic to your life – (c) Dr Lisa Upshaw

My confidence, though, and drive, will never get to the same level again, and I have to accept this. I am still struggling with retaining information and finding the right word, and for someone who has always traded in words (writing, presenting) that scares me. I play word-games, I blog, I make sure each and every day I am out and about I talk to at least two or three people; it doesn’t matter who or why, the most mundane interaction helps a lot.

While being off, I have tried to get out of the door most days. Stay engaged with what’s going on in the world. I still feel shattered but not weepy or angry anymore. I have reconnected with “me” since stepping back from work. I have engaged with my husband more, my parents, my house. Health is everything, work is not the be all and end all of my life, nor are the financial compensations that come from it.

Occupational health felt it may be more that six months before I am fully able to engage with work on a full-time basis; I want to pre-empt this, and to stop any possibility of causing problems to the business from short-term (or worse) when I return, so I am exploring flexible working and reduced hours. There are no guarantees of course, which leads me to worry about what may happen if I return full-time too soon.

Capture1

Quotation by Pete Wentz

Now I know myself a lot better, now my medication has changed, now I know that I am not responsible for the failings of everyone else in my organisation. I still have high standards, I still care, but I have to balance that black dog which sometimes makes me whine, or bark, or want to curl up in a corner. I have to conquer it. And I will, but now I accept that time needs to be taken to do so.

Many friends have been very supportive and caring during this process: I thank them all here. You’re terrific, especially those of you who have been through similar feelings and situations. The support network out there is immense. Within organisations, though, and within the NHS, there is a mountain to climb when it comes to understanding, empathy, and basic levels of support.

Mental health is not “like breaking a leg”. It is feeling so much pressure you feel caged, or want to break and run. It is feeling so frustrated you lash out in anger at yourself and others. It is feeling sad and hopeless, sometimes to the point of looking at a train track, a knife, or pills, and thinking “what if”.  It is feeling terrified at the thoughts that come and go, which plague you in the dark or needle you in the light.

Most of all it is finding one’s inner strength, and recognising the best and most appropriate path to recovery.  Wish me luck.

 


King Lear (Duke of York’s)

Ten years ago we saw Ian McKellen play the title role in King Lear at the New London Theatre, a storming performance which was captured on film and shown on television.  Now he’s back for another crack at the complex role in a modernish production directed by Jonathan Munby and fresh from acclaim at the Chichester Festival.

kinglear

Ian McKellen (Lear)

This Lear rules a court dominated by a huge portrait of him in royal and military regalia, and although his map is one of the modern British Isles, his entourage pray to the old gods and seem in thrall of curses and the stars.  In a vignette opening, we have seen the old soldier stand, a sort of far ancestor of the Richard III he played in 1991 at the National Theatre, stiff and resolute.

When the old man states his intention to divide his kingdom, there is an exclamation of “what?”, and as each daughter takes the microphone to flatter their way into a coronet, we get the measure of their (Goneril and Regan in any case) duplicity and his weakness for flattery.

lear2

Anita-Joy Uwajen (Cordelia), Sinead Cusack (Kent), Ian McKellen (Lear)

Claire Price is ice-cold as the elder daughter, who tolerates her meek husband Albany (Anthony Howell) for his connections as she watches elsewhere for a suitor.  In contrast, Kirsty Bushell starts calm enough as Regan, but becomes unhinged to the point of dancing like a dervish in Gloucester’s torture scene, and seems consumed by lust and power as the play progresses.

And finally, Anita-Joy Uwajen’s Cordelia convinces as the honest and loving child who takes up arms following her exile in marriage to the King of France and brings back strength to her ailing father.

Kent, often a difficult role to carry off, is played here by Sinead Cusack, as a Countess who disguises herself as a rough manservant (shades of Twelfth Night and the metamorphosis of Viola to Cesario).  She’s a convincing character, having fun with the text and yet portraying the sensitivity of a true friend to the King through female eyes.

lear4

Ian McKellen (Lear) and Danny Webb (Gloucester)

As the unfortunate Earl of Gloucester, Danny Webb brings amusement to his astronomical charts, naivete about his sons and their intentions, and eventually pathos in the scenes at Dover with first the disguised Edgar, and then the broken-minded Lear; quite a contrast to his brutal Cornwall of the 2016 Old Vic production.

I always find the Edgar/Edmund plotline to slow down this already lengthy play, and neither Luke Thompson nor James Corrigan really convince, although I liked the camp and vain Oswald of Michael Matus, and the Fool (Lloyd Hutchinson) had his moments here and there.

lear3

Ian McKellen (Lear)

But this is McKellen’s show, and whether raging against the daughters he feels have discarded his status, authority and dignity, losing his mind and faculties in a raging storm of rain, or presiding over a mock trial with offal and pig’s heads, he keeps your interest, and his final scene is completely, emotionally, heartbreaking, as the loss of his youngest child causes his own life to ebb away, but as it does we see within the dementia-stricken brain the brave soldier – who we saw, isolated, in the battle scene – as well as the anointed ruler who caused all to bend their knees in supplication.

A marvellous performance, and if this is McKellen’s final Shakespeare on the stage, we have been lucky indeed to “see so much” and “live so long”.  I found the production a little bit modern, and felt that the religious aspects were forgotten too quickly, but these are “just trifles here”.  This production is worth your time, and runs at the Duke of York’s until the second week in November 2018.

Buy the text of King Lear from Amazon UK

Buy the DVD of the New London theatre production from Amazon UK


DVD audit 2018 – pt 3

More film and television from my DVD collection.




The Lehman Trilogy (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

On paper this does not sound particularly promising – a saga of three brothers who move from Bavaria to America to make money by the creation of first a middleman business, then a bank.   A saga which runs for over three and a half hours, including two 15 minute intervals.

Eight years ago I saw Enron, the clever drama by Lucy Prebble about a corporate financial crisis.  Due to excellent performances and use of music, this was a fantastic show on a dull topic.  This is also true of The Lehman Trilogy (Three Brothers, Fathers and Sons, The Immortals), even more so as every single role is played by three actors at the top of their game – Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley.

lehman 1

Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles (photo by Mark Douet)

Sam Mendes returns to stage directing, as Ben Power and the company have developed this rather special piece of theatre from an Italian play by Stefano Massini.  It starts in the mid-2000s with the collapse of the Lehman Corporation, but we are quickly pulled back to 1844 and the arrival in America of the newly renamed ‘Henry’ Lehman, his ambitions beginning with a small general store (beautifully described by Russell Beale as he gestures to glass walls and office storage boxes and conjures up rows of clothes, hats, ties, jackets and more; just as he described with words like pictures his long voyage between continents).

Surrounded by the plantations of the prosperous South of Montgomery, Alabama, Henry soon welcomes his brothers Emanuel and Mayer across the ocean, and opportunity quickly strikes when they expand to offering material needed by the overseers and owners, then trading in raw cotton itself following a fiery stroke of fate.  The expansion of the business in these years of growth is indicated by the movement from one small room to a larger one, each having a black marker sign written up by the actors; over the course of “Three Brothers” this will be utilised a lot, so we can see the past within the present as the saga progresses.

Henry dies, young, of yellow fever, and the Jewish brothers still steeped in their culture of home, grow their beards, shut themselves away, tear their clothing, and mourn – but time moves on, Mayer marries, then so does Emanuel (Babette and Pauline are depicted brilliantly by Russell Beale and Godley, with just a change of vocal pitch and characterisation).  Their motivation moves from doing good for their community to the movement and acquisition of money – the Civil War finally forcing an uproot to the prosperous shores of New York and the North.

lehman 2

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley (photo by Mark Douet)

“Fathers and Sons” brings in the next generation, the precocious Philip, who can recite every city his family does business with, and who has an eye for the railroads, and Herbert, who starts as a playful toddler and ends as the Governor of New York.  There are other children quickly enumerated but discarded from the narrative, which races through the last years of the 19th century, into the 20th, and up to the fateful day of the Wall Street Crash.

Philip has himself found a wife during this time, but in his analytical mind he only looks for the material advantages, as an amusing vignette demonstrates, as girls are assessed against his twenty-point list for the perfect mate.  He also gains an acquaintance who climbs as high as he does, the high wire artist (Russell Beale, again, who also plays the doddery Rabbi who fights on matters of Biblical doctrine with young Herbert) who topples from his perch the day the markets collapse.

“The Immortals” starts with the suicide of stockbrokers, and the cunning of the now mature Philip and his son, Bobbie, who invest in the future – first, transportation, then the movies and television. Bobbie likes the horses, and lives to win, even capturing the divorced Ruth Lamar, who sees the dollar signs within her new husband’s heart.  By the time the trading floors open under the custodianship of the uncouth Lew Glucksman (Miles, again), we are a long way from Henry Lehman’s fabrics and suits shop of a hundred years before.

lehman 3

Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles (photo by Mark Douet)

It is a tribute to the three actors involved, and their director and set designer (Es Devlin) that they create this wide variety of characters without any costume changes, and with the use of a minimum of props – those office storage boxes and glass walls, a revolving set, some chairs and a table, a bunch of flowers, a marker pen.

There is a piano, which leads to one amusing scene courtesy of Russell Beale’s Babette miming to Beethoven, Mozart, and ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’.  There are squawling children who grow to run the Lehman empire when the last family member has been laid to rest (with no mourning, no tearing of clothes, or closing of business).  And, finally, we return to the boardroom at the closure of the Corporation on that last day.

A very funny, perceptive, engrossing and well-written piece, the play moves quickly and is never dull.  There is one wickedly amusing bit about progress and music which leads to the death of one of the characters, but got one of the best laughs of the afternoon.  Ultimately this is a family saga for which you might be advised to do some background reading (and the programme has a useful chronology and family tree), but don’t let that stop you going – if you can get a ticket!

The Lehman Trilogy runs until the 20th October 2018, in repertory.  Tickets have sold out, but some may become available through Friday Rush or Day Ticket schemes, please see https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-lehman-trilogy for more details.

 


Classic Corrie: back to the 80s

I think I finally called time on Coronation Street about sixteen years ago. There were too many episodes, too many silly storylines, and after about 25 years viewing I’d noticed a definite decline in quality.

I know it’s still there, and that Ken, Rita, Gail, Audrey, Kevin and Sally are still on the cobbles they probably all wanted to leave far behind.

For several months now, since 2nd October 2017, ITV3 have been showing two episodes a day of classic 1980s Corrie, starting with a storyline which is about to reach its lengthy conclusion – the arrival of arch-villain Alan Bradley (Mark Eden).

This was on the 15th January 1986, when he was a fairly mild-mannered man, reunited with his daughter Jenny (Sally Ann Matthews, who these days has returned to the cobbles as a forty-something lady causing as much trouble as she did as a teen).

ritaalanjenny

Jenny, Rita, Alan (Sally Ann Matthews, Barbara Knox, Mark Eden)

Fast fact one: the social worker who engineered this touching reunion, and incidentally gave the widow Fairclough (Barbara Knox) a bit of rough and romance, was no other than the actor who returned as Gail’s third husband and smarmy serial killer Richard Hillman (Brian Capron).

Aside from Bradley, those 80s episodes introduced the threat to the Rovers of the grotty Graffiti Club, run by Alec Gilroy (Roy Barraclough), who chased the leopard-printed and huge-bosomed Bet Lynch (Julie Goodyear) like a little tiger cub, until financial ruin, a job in sunny Spain waiting tables, and a touch of vulnerability, united them in marriage.

Bet & Alec

Bet and Alec (Julie Goodyear and Roy Barraclough)

This marriage was a joy to behold as this couple were a rich source of comedy, as well as one of the shortest but saddest storylines: they found themselves prospective older parents planning a baby bedroom, then having a tender moment after the pain of miscarriage before picking themselves up and going on as before.

Fast fact two: Julie Goodyear’s second marriage ended at the reception, as her new husband left her for his own best man, after she had put everything she owned in his joint ownership.

Later in the run, the Gilroys would have a divorce scare due to their mutual jealousy, but soon grew together again. Their reign in the Rovers was a high point of the late 80s and early 90s, even if Barraclough took a lot of time away from the programme due to other commitments in a busy career – he was half of the double act Cissie and Ada with the fabulous Les Dawson, and a regular in the theatre.

Youngsters Kevin Webster (Michael Le Vell) – whose family had upped and left him, following the marriage of his father Bill to Elaine, the niece of local busybody Percy Sugden – and Terry Duckworth (Nigel Pivaro) fought over pretty Sally Seddon (Sally Whitaker) until Kevin married her and Terry went through a succession of married ladies including his own father’s mistress, horny Dulcie.

sallyhildakevin

Sally, Hilda and Kevin (Sally Whitaker, Jean Alexander, Michael Le Vell)

The Duckworths were growing from grasping and selfish to national treasures during this period. Jack (Bill Tarmey), a layabout who once bedded Bet Lynch and sees himself as a wise lothario, and Vera (Liz Dawn), a loudmouthed, spiteful chav who thinks the sun shines out of her son, have some great storylines on the periphery, but their best years are ahead of them.

Fast fact three: Bill Tarmey was an accomplished singer despite Jack’s lack of talent, and Liz Dawn had also started her career as a nightclub chanteuse. Jack’s on-screen death memorably had him visited by the ghost of his beloved Vera, as they dance to Matt Monro’s ‘Softly As I Leave You’.

Vera works at Baldwin’s Casuals factory alongside Ivy Tilsley (Lynne Perrie), Ida Clough (Helene Palmer), Shirley Armitage (Lisa Lewis), and Emily Bishop (Eileen Derbyshire). Over this re-run we have seen Ivy deal with the scandal of her son Brian’s split with daughter-in-law Gail (Chris Quentin and Helen Worth) when Gail, bored, has a fling with an Aussie, Ian Latimer (Michael Loney) and thinks the resulting pregnancy might be his.

gailian

Gail and Ian (Helen Worth and Michael Loney)

After an age, the Tilsleys reconcile, only for Brian to be killed in a knife attack. In the episodes currently being shown, Gail is living with Martin Platt (Sean Wilson) who was previously a teen dating young Jenny Bradley, before suddenly growing up and finding himself able to support a family of three.

In the meantime, (poison) Ivy, who is a strict Catholic with a range of expressions from darkest disapproval to the sunniest of smiles, has hooked herself husband number two to help her forget her first, Bert, in fiery taxi driver and gambler Don Brennan (Geoff Hinsliff). We will see his story arc develop into obsession and madness over the next decade.

As the Websters get closer together as they lodge with the wonderful Hilda Ogden (Jean Alexander) and her ‘muriel’, the twittery Mavis Riley (Thelma Barlow) and the dithering Derek Wilton (Peter Baldwin) also make their way to the altar (fortified by a lot of Dutch courage in Derek’s case, as he gets completely blotto at the stag night). Mavis and Derek will offer another ten years of amusement in the show., as well as the second union of a Barlow to a Baldwin (albeit utilising real names).

mavisderek.jpg

Mavis and Derek (Thelma Barlow and Peter Baldwin)

Another marriage does not fare as well, as Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs) falls for Susan Barlow (Wendy Jane Walker), daughter of his sworn enemy, Ken (William Roache). Why enemies? Well, in the early 80s, Mike had availed himself of the bespectacled charms of the dull Deirdre (Anne Kirkbride) and nearly caused Mrs Barlow Number Three to escape to more exciting climes.

Fast fact four: the Ken-Deirdre-Mike storyline was the talk of the North West, and even caused the message “Ken and Deirdre reunited. Ken 1 – Mike 0” to be displayed on the scoreboard at Manchester United’s ground during a football match!

Still, with Ken showing what a pompous man he really is, up on his moral high ground, he can’t stop Susan and Mike being happy for a year or so, even when he plans a 21st party full of bright young things to show up the 40-something boyfriend. It’s enjoyable watching the starchy Barlow fail in his machinations, but less enjoyable later watching him put down his wife when she successfully runs for council, then start an affair with Weatherfield Wendy Crozier (Roberta Kerr).

susanmike.jpg

Susan and Mike (Wendy Jane Walker and Johnny Briggs)

After the Baldwins plot to bring Alan Bradley and Rita Fairclough back together (Alan’s been straying, with barmaid Gloria Todd (Sue Jenkins), who puts herself about so much she goes – via Baldwin – to her own tempestuous exit after stealing the beau of mousy cleaner Sandra (Sally Watts)), they part following Susan’s decision to abort the baby Mike so desperately wants after his previous girlfriend Maggie stopped him seeing their son, Mark.

It’s another powerful storyline (showing even the brash Mike has a soft side) somewhat cheapened these days by the 2001 retcon that Susan did not in fact abort the child at all. I prefer to believe the original storyline, which was played out beautifully by all concerned, particularly Anne Kirkbride’s Deirdre who still, at this point, wants a child with Ken.

Fast fact five: Mike Baldwin’s life was retconned more than once, as his long-standing status as an only child was changed to give him yet another son he did not know about (Danny, played by Bradley Walsh). Mike’s eventual exit was in true King Lear style, dying in the arms of his arch-enemy Ken Barlow on the Street’s cobbles.

The Bradley-Fairclough relationship takes several turns – Jenny proves a problem teenager, who briefly and amusingly gets engaged to a comedy Frenchman; Alan shows a tendency to violence when he batters Terry and threatens Martin, and further romantic excursions when he starts an affair with a married woman, Carole. He also tries various business ventures, always leeching off his unsuspecting partner – you even realise his attempt to marry her had financial gain in mind.

Alan_bradley_1989.jpg

Alan Bradley (Mark Eden)

Rita, who confesses to Mavis that Alan reminds her of her late husband Len, isn’t put off by all the red flags, and even grovels to tempt him back for her money. Barbara Knox plays the vulnerable core under the steely front of Rita brilliantly, and Mark Eden’s Bradley develops in a terrifyingly realistic way from a man with a wandering eye and a bit of temper to a psychopath.

Fast fact six: Mark Eden (Alan) and Sue Nicholls (Audrey) were and are a real-life couple, having been married since 1993 and together for some years previously. Mark Eden (born Douglas Malin) was previously married to Joan Le Mesurier, the widow of the Dad’s Army star John. Sue Nicholls is styled ‘The Honorable’ due to her father’s status as a Life Peer.

I’m sorry we didn’t see more of Jean Alexander’s Hilda during this period, as she left in the Christmas episode of 1987. Looking back now, she could have had a future in Formby with Sally’s nice but boring Uncle Tom, but for dramatic licence she had to be nearly murdered (by the chap who returned in this week’s repeats, now playing a police officer, Mark Jordan) before deciding to move from the street. She was a great comic character who was also capable of pathos, Spoonerisms, and a motherly disposition and gossip.

gloriabethilda

Gloria, Bet and Hilda (Sue Jenkins, Julie Goodyear and Jean Alexander)

Gail’s mother, Audrey (Sue Nicholls) is at this point married to the most decent man on the cobbles, grocer Alf Roberts (Bryan Mosley). She’s a grasping social climber while he’s a miser who can hardly believe he’s caught this vivacious party girl, even if she regularly causes him grief. Their mutual love was obvious in the storyline where Alf has a heart attack, leaving Audrey clearly worried and devastated.

Alf_audrey_1980s

Audrey and Alf (Sue Nicholls and Bryan Mosley)

Aside from a silly, but fun, interlude, where Audrey is tempted by Canada, a son we never knew about, and a chancing Canadian widower (Shane Rimmer, returning after playing the chap who widowed Elsie Tanner for the second time in 1970), they settle into a companionable union often characterised by ‘Alfie’ having those secret little smiles – although he will always have a yen for Rita.

The older characters are not neglected in 80s Corrie, either. We meet Vera Duckworth’s shop-lifting mother, Amy (Fanny Carby); the pious parents (Kenneth Waller and Angela Rooks) of Norman ‘Curly’ Watts (Kevin Kennedy), former dustman, student, and eventual supermarket supremo; Don Brennan’s mother Bridget (Pauline Letts); and already mentioned Tom (Len Marten).

These were fleeting appearances, but more solid were the two would-be lovebirds Percy Sugden (Bill Waddington) and Phyllis Pearce (Jill Summers). The actors playing these two were old sparring partners from the days of music hall, and their naturalistic portrayals gave strength to the characters, even if Phyllis was occasionally tempted away by Sam Tindall (Tom Mennard), a meek man who might have a bit of money stashed away.

Percy’s barricade of his flat at the Community Centre gave him a sense of purpose which is now put to good use as a lollipop man, and nicely judged lodger of Emily Bishop – the two remain on formal terms, although you suspect Percy might yearn for something a little more.

percyphyllis.jpg

Percy and Phyllis (Bill Waddington and Jill Summers)

Money was also a motivator for cafe owner Alma Sedgewick (Amanda Barrie), who isn’t particularly likeable at this point, but has already thrown her cap and more at Mike Baldwin, before he dumped her for another younger partner, Dawn Prescott (Louise Harrison).

Dawn is only back for the conclusion of the Bradley saga, though, as his early release from prison to terrorise poor Rita will lead him to the seaside, very soon, and his demise under that tram.

Alan Bradley’s run on The Street came to an end in the second episode to be shown on the 30th July 2018, on ITV3. It originally aired 8th December 1989.


Happy Thoughts, Darling

Classic movies, Classic stars

Film Dialogue

Film Dialogue is a forum for anyone with interest in cinema and film history

LouDVDReviews

TV, film, documentary, animation and music talk

ENTERTAINMENT REALM

Amy Steele on music, books and other (mostly alternative) entertainment

%d bloggers like this: