Author Archives: Louise Penn

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan.

Long Day’s Journey into Night (Wyndham’s)

Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical play comes to the West End in another lengthy production, this time starring Jeremy Irons as ageing actor James Tyrone, and Lesley Manville as his morphine-addicted wife, Mary.

A claustrophobic set lined with books and lights moves the plot forward as first, we see Mary Tyrone in recovery, happy and calm, but soon realise she is in her own reality of dope heaven (or hell). In Manville’s hands the role takes on both the fierceness and deceit of an addict, along with the weakness of the wife and mother who ‘once fell in love with James Tyrone, and was so happy’.

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Irons is a theatrical Tyrone, every inch an actor and never a glimpse into the real man. He baits his sons – the shiftless Jamie (Rory Keenan) and the consumptive Edmund (Matthew Beard) – and yet can’t control even the level of whisky in the bottle he keeps on the table. He sees the girl within his wife, but can’t reach her.

The twisting hands, the trailing wedding dress, the lying on the bed with eyes open, the drifting, the drinking, the moments where just for a minute or two Mary Tyrone is happy again. It’s all about her, and the moments where Manville is absent from the stage drag, just a little, in a heart to heart between Irons and Beard where the latter just can’t catch the tragedy of the character.

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Keenan, though, is good, filled with self-loathing and self-destruction, on a spiral of disappointment by seeing addiction and disgust all around him. He has his father’s name and perhaps, his weakness too. There’s nothing but a downward spiral for all of them, in this raw and broken world where everyone lies and no one can face what’s really going on around them.


Mary Stuart (Duke of York’s)

Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots were both of the same Royal blood, both anointed monarchs, and both passionate.

This production plays with the similarities and differences between the Queens by having both leading actresses playing one or the other parts on the toss of a coin.

Yesterday afternoon Lia Williams played Mary and Juliet Stevenson was Elizabeth. Mary was quick, impulsive, frustrated, and every inch a queen even when imprisoned in bare walls.

Elizabeth is proud and aloof, commanding her courtiers with a click and primping her appearance with a compact mirror. A public virgin she privately romps with the duplicitous Leicester (John Light) while toying with a promise of marriage from France.

Mary, though, three times a wife, a mother, a lover. Also with Leicester, which may be her downfall, and his. She seethes at her treatment and long imprisonment when seeking asylum – this play is on the side of her innocence – but equally she seeks Elizabeth’s acknowledgement as an equal.

The meeting never happened in history but here it works well within the machinations of state and politics. Stevenson’s Elizabeth is imperious enough to recover quickly following the shock of seeing the woman who has plagued her and caused her endless worry standing before her in the garden at Fotheringay.

Mary’s gamble, hoping for the mercy of another monarch, causes her to move quickly towards execution; a misfire in which Elizabeth’s pride is worked on by a weasley Burleigh, despite the best efforts of a sympathetic yet tradition-bound Talbot (a very strong performance from Michael Byrne).

The slight amusement of early scenes evaporates in Act Four as Mary’s fate is sealed and her execution looms. A Catholic, she is allowed her last communion and to walk to the block in the company of her nurse (Carmen Munroe).

The scene where Elizabeth is garbed in her white face, boned corset and dress, pearls, ruff and wig, is juxtaposed with Mary reduced to a simple shift, majesty removed but morally victorious. It’s an emotional piece which is riveting and accompanied by a new song by Laura Marling.

Robert Icke directs Friedrich Schiller’s play, in a sparse set with modern dressed characters, an explosive script, and two very strong women who are closer together than they might think.

Mary gains a strange sense of freedom while Elizabeth remains uneasy and trapped with the guilt of her regicide. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, indeed.


The Illustrated Vivian Stanshall – book review

Vivian Stanshall was his own peculiar creation.

Born in 1943, and named Victor, this artist, musician and unique personification of the English dandy, free spirit and eccentric, proves hard to pin down.

His widow, Ki Longfellow, has had this book in planning for a long time. Her history. His history. That of friends and collaborators, family and fans, and more.

From the early days as a member of the Bonzo Dog Dada Band – the quirky mix of Studdy drawing and creative canvas – the renamed Vivian excuded a virile and dangerous charm in the most simple of songs. If his Intro was via affectionate spoofs of old 78s, it would be the route to a drunken Viking flame, all consuming much of his legacy in his Muswell Hill flat.

This book is not a biography. Not a memoir. Some of it we’ve seen before (Vivian and Ki’s first date, with him in green with his beard tied with a ribbon, and her, the American who had no clue who he was, regarding him so closely they clicked and understood each other; notes on his solo albums Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead and Teddy Boys Don’t Knit), some is new – the drinking, the chemical experimentation leaving to a broken, brilliant brain and a sensual sensitivity alongside the behaviour one might charitably describe as quirky, but those who lived with it might have felt they were screaming into the void.

The book, which runs to 320 pages of beautiful perfect-bound paperback (and did I say it smells great? Well, it smells great), is, as promised by the title, illustrated, lavishly so with drawings by Ben Wickey, personal photographs from many aspects of Vivian’s life, and writings and paintings by the man himself – he threw his torment and his sense of fun into his art, and wrote love notes to his wife on single sheets of toilet paper – musing while straining?

There’s love on each page. Frustration, too. Loss. Admiration. Regret. It’s a happy book. It’s a sad book. It’s an honest book. There are lyrics – Strange Tongues, Arc of a Diver – which belie the mad and odd image many carry of Stanshall, if they remember him at all. They speak of a perceptive visionary who looked at life and the world so askance that it probably gleamed crystal clear.

Keith Moon, Who drummer, fellow imbiber, partner in frivolities, dead just past thirty. Vivian Stanshall, at thirty out of the Bonzos, creating Sir Henry at Rawlinson End for radio, album, movie. Hubert the hurt who lost his shirt.

Ki opening herself wide open to pull his into that world, sticky, tricky, prickly – the boats, the art, the exploitation, the obsession with cock which made the artist honest and unabashed as addictions removed inhibitions and lifted the Crank into something wider.

Sadness. When Vivian Stanshall died, he was still only young but in that physical shell there was so much strength. That beauty on page 22 (and he was, however curio-bat-crazee that sounds) became the genius, the push me pull me which came apart and reassembled in a shape which couldn’t operate within the normal.

This book is a triumph. It’s pricey for sure, and will cost you the same as a decent West End theatre ticket, or all of the recorded oeuvre of VS put together, but if you are any kind of fan – and it is squarely aimed at the fan – you will feel a connection to the man, or as close as you can get through one woman’s reality of his reality of himself. Or something.


Barnum (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Set in the round, this tale of the circus’s greatest showman boasts a memorable score by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart.

The Menier has turned the bar area into a museum of curiosities ‘on loan from the estate of PT Barnum’, into which ringmaster Dominic Owen kickstarts the show by looking for Tom Thumb – in the auditorium itself there are coloured lightbulbs, posters and a circus ring with a tiny stool and piano.

The original productions of Barnum, starring Michael Crawford and Jim Dale, are renowned for their comic timing, showmanship and stunts. This production is high energy but falls a bit flat in its leading performance; Marcus Brigstocke interacts well with the audience in the second half, but his voice is weak and he looks more like a fish out of water than the centre of attention. If Barnum doesn’t steal the show (although he did make it across the tightrope in one go), then there’s something not quite right.

As the ladies in his life, Laura Pitt-Pulford makes a steely yet touching Chairy, while Celinde Schoenmaker hits the high notes as the Swedish nightingale Jenny Lind.

In the ensemble, Owen catches the eye throughout with tumbles and liveliness, Preston and Kelsey Jamieson do lifts and fire work, and the company perform a range of routines from a brass band and tap dancing, to aerial hoops and basic magic tricks (some of which involve the audience at the start).

Recommended even with the central miscasting, director Gordon Greenberg uses the space well and Harry Francis dances with aplomb as Tom Thumb. There’s even a tiny toy train to represent travel and a range of model buildings hoisted on hooks to show location, and ‘a real live elephant’. It’s all rather charming and displays quite an amount of what Barnum describes as ‘humbug’.


Motown (Shaftesbury Theatre)

‘Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street’. Well, it isn’t summer yet but it is time to check out this hagiography about Berry Gordy written by, um, Berry Gordy, in a show he also produced.

Veering between an obsession with Motown star (and Gordy girlfriend) Diana Ross, and the frankly misguided decision to force more than 50 songs into a threadbare narrative, this show only stands on the quality of its songs, which thankfully are good.

There are four big roles and a hard working cast of ensemble and swings who play the rest – at the performance I saw Ashley Samuels was in great voice as Gordy, Kieran McGinn was a bit superfluous as Smokey Robinson (really, all those great songs missing, a waste of this performer’s voice), Lucy St Louis was spirited but no Ross, and Kayi Ushe was the very spirit of Marvin Gaye.

A feelgood jukebox show cluttered with simplistic political commentary about the deaths of President JFK and Dr King, and Vietnam, this show works best when acts are simply allowed to perform (Jay Perry impresses, for example, as both David Ruffin of The Temptations and as Jermaine Jackson), and the medley of dubious 70s acts signed by Gordy really needs to go!

Wigs and stick-on beards are awful, though, and the set is a tad on the cheap side. Ultimately this is a bloated ego trip which doesn’t quite do full justice to the songs (and I would have liked to hear more from Diana Ross as Billie Holiday), and it pales in comparison to other jukebox shows such as ‘Beautiful’ or ‘Sunny Afternoon’.


Network (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

The 1976 film version of this is one of my all-time favourites, a biting, pulsing, black satire on the power of the media. This production, directed by Ivo van Hove, was obviously appealing from the word go.

Howard Beale is a news anchor. He’s losing ratings, losing patience, and losing his mind. When hard-nosed executive programmer Diana Christensen sees the opportunity to exploit his slide into madness to build an ‘angry prophet’ show around him, corporate monster Frank Hackett sees a way to chisel to the top of the tree at the network, pushing old-timer Max Schumaker out along the way.

The set is interesting, dominated by a huge video screen and flanked on each side by glass-walled offices, and what has been termed the ‘Foodwork’ experience, where diners pay up to £250 a head for a five-course meal, a ringside seat, and a bit of show interaction.

Casting is dominated by Bryan Cranston (‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Trumbo’) as Beale, and he’s terrific, at turns vulnerable, bravura, and simply ‘as mad as hell’. You may remember a social media call for people to film themselves saying that iconic line – here those videos pepper the wall to show the national reach of the News Hour.

Michelle Dockery brings a certain emotional blankness to the part of Diana, whether she’s pitching an idea, taking a phonecall, or having rushed intercourse with Max, unable to remove her attention away from work.

As Max, Douglas Henshall feels too young and far from the jaded drunk a lifetime with television has made him, and Tunji Kasim was totally inadequate as Hackett (a role with needs an actor with range, as Robert Duvall demonstrated in the film).

Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay has been cleverly adapted by Lee Hall, although some of the dubious and immoral politics have been filtered out, and the attempts to make the Lyttelton audience studio accomplices fell flat.

Ultimately, this plot remains presient considering how politicians have come to manipulate the media for their own ends, just as network boss Jensen (Richard Cordery) does here for the corporate good.

I enjoyed the staging which allowed both the screen and the ‘reality’ to be watched (and I’d recommend a circle seat for this). I couldn’t get invested enough in the characters, though, which makes this production flashy, stunning, but superficial.


Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Apollo)

Before I put together this review of the musical which started in Sheffield and which now has a new life in the West End, I tracked down the original documentary on which it is based – Jamie: a drag queen at 16 – and watched the basic story of how gay teenager Jamie Campbell was supported by his mother, family friend Lee, best friend Sam(antha), and drag queen Simon to achieve his dream of having a drag show and of taking that character to the school prom.

Jamie-Campbell-and-John-McCrea-1.-ETAJ-Credit-James-StewartJamie Campbell and John McCrea, photo by James Stewart.

Three years in the making, the musical version takes Jamie (now with the surname New) and his mother Margaret, and the basic plot, as jumping-off points to present a narrative filled with pulsating dance beats, big ballads, and racially diverse characters (Lee, a white woman, is now Ray, an Asian woman, and Sam has become the hijab-wearing Pritti (Lucie Shorthouse, who gives what could be a stereotypical character an interesting slant)).

After watching the documentary it feels a bit of a shame that stage Jamie’s final prom dress is so understated, and you only ever see the famous make-up from the posters just once, as ‘Mimi Me’ struts her stuff on the Legs Eleven stage.

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John McCrea (who I saw last some years ago in The Sound of Music as the eldest Von Trapp boy) totally convinces as the teen who is working through both confusion and confidence, and when his doting mum purchases a dazzling pair of red high heels for his birthday, he walks in them as if he’s been wearing them all his life.

The big production numbers are all set in the schoolroom (‘And You Don’t Even Know It’; ‘Work of Art’; ‘Out of the Darkness’), while the slower songs – Jamie’s ‘The Wall in My Head’ and ‘Ugly in This Ugly World’; and Margaret’s ‘If I Met Myself Again’ and ‘He’s My Boy’ are in the home or elsewhere (maybe in a single spotlight).

John-McCrea-Jamie-New-and-Lucie-Shorthouse-Pritti-Pasha-in-Everybodys-Talking-About-Jamie-at-the-Apollo-TheatreJohn McCrea and Lucie Shorthouse

At the performance I saw, Rebecca McKinnis was on as Margaret, and both her acting and singing were superb.  I also enjoyed the lovely and understated performance of Phil Nichol as Hugo/Lolo Chanelle and the ‘out there’ shenanigans of real-life drag queens Alex Anstey and Daniel Jacobs, who perform as Vileda Moppe and Vinegar Strokes respectively out there, and as Laika Virgin and Sandra Bollock here; they are joined by James Gillan, a former Marilyn in the Boy George musical Taboo, and who doesn’t feel out of place.

This is a truly life-affirming musical, with memorable tunes and lyrics by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae, and if it is a little corny, and extremely camp, it doesn’t care.  I would have snipped out the bigoted dad, and toned down the pantomime queen teacher, and made Jamie really put himself out there, but these are small quibbles.

The musical is about the importance of being yourself rather than hiding behind what others might want you to be, and that message comes out loud and clear, with the audience accomplices in the claps, cheers and whoops that the cast, the fabulous band, and the book (both funny and tragic) deserve.


Jewelled Tree revisited

Back in December 2000 my poetry book was published. But this was only part of the story – I’ve said a bit about it in an earlier post but now the publishing house and company, The Word Hoard, has been dissolved, I wanted to tell the whole tale and in due course I will share the entire book as originally developed.

I was accepted on to a writing scheme called The Opening Line in 1997. This took the form of a number of workshops in which our mentor, poet Ian Duhig, helped us shape our ideas and developed a piece of work which would ultimately be published.

Mine was a full-length poetry collection, with linked poems telling a story as a whole. Reading it back now, the two full years spent getting it just right were well-spent. It stands up well.  There were 61 poems in all, and a dedication to the school friend I had always promised I’d write a book for. This was it.

I was delighted to hear that The Word Hoard’s imprint, Spout, were going to publish my book. I’d lived with it a long time, and was very proud of it. But editor Keith Jafrate appeared disinterested in the work. He certainly didn’t understand it, and I received a letter saying only 27 poems would be published and ‘all would need editing.

The editing, such as it was, was poor. I had to fight to save some key lines and some titles as they were in the original Ms. Far from a collaborative process, the book was mutilated to the point that I didn’t revisit the original version for seventeen years.

I found the original Jewelled Tree this week. It’s an excellent piece of work, and hangs together in a way that makes sense. No thanks to the Word Hoard who couldn’t be bothered supporting my project, or to my mentor who went incommunicado presumably when the project stopped paying him.

I rarely write poems now. But I have the book to look back on, and I can now share on my own terms.  Watch this space.


Review of 2017: out and about

My take on the year’s outings:

Jan 2017

A Christmas Carol (Arts). A hit, nicely performed by Simon Callow.

Hedda Gabler (National). A top ten smash, an engrossing version of a favourite play.

She Loves Me (Menier). A hit, with a bouncy score and obligatory Strallen.

Feb 2017

Round the Horne (Richmond). A muddle, with some laughs and a fab Kenneth W but a lot of it felt forced.

Mar 2017

Twelfth Night (National).  Another definite hit, lifting the play to something new and fresh.

Lost With Words (National). Improv with aged thesps, which I loved. It seems to have been overlooked by many.

Honeymoon in Vegas (Palladium). Concert version, which suffered from unsure leads but had moments which did justice to the original film.

Amadeus (National). A play I love, but I disliked this production’s Mozart too much to class this as a highlight.

Shirley Valentine (Richmond). A hit, in a role Jodie Prenger was surely born to play.

An American in Paris (Dominion). I loved it with its dancing and its sweetness. It should have had a longer life.

Apr 2017

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia (Theatre Royal Haymarket). An inventive hit and a black as pitch play.

Carousel (Coliseum). Dreadful leads couldn’t mar the superior material, but when the supporting cast is what you remember, there’s something wrong.

May 2017

42nd Street (Theatre Royal Drury Lane). Opulent hit, nicely done songs and red hot tap.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Harold Pinter). Sensational and brilliant but Conleth Hill beat Imelda to the acting gold.

Lettice and Lovage (Menier). Quaintly dotty but quietly fun.

Jun 2017

We saw Rainbow with Sweet at the Stone Free Festival, O2 Arena. The former were great, the latter were better than expected.

Penn and Teller (Eventim Apollo Hammersmith). A new show with old favourites and quirks. Always a pleasure.

Jul 2017

Half a Sixpence (Noel Coward). Joyous fun with great songs, even on Charlie Stemp’s week off.

The Tempest (RSC at the Barbican). Video projections and holograms were gimmicky but worth it for SRB.

Aug 2017

IAAF World Championship Athletics with my Sport Personality of the Year, Hero the Hedgehog.

The Mentor (Vaudeville). A strange play, but one I enjoyed.

Sep 2017

Follies (National). Musical of the Year, beautifully done and almost perfectly cast.

Oct 2017

Girl from the North Country (Old Vic). A stunning Dylan score made up for any story deficiencies.

Wings (Young Vic). Loved it, and Juliet Stevenson was terrific in that flying harness, remembering a tricky script.

Heisenberg (Wyndham’s). Two actors at the top of their powers in an engrossing and curious romance of uncertainty.

Nov 2017

Beginning (Dorfman). Another strange romance in real-time, nicely played and well-written.

Big Fish (The Other Palace). Superlative in every way.

And we saw Bananarama, who were far better than expected.

Dec 2017

Glengarry Glen Ross (Playhouse). A mini-hit, but not spectacular.

Moscow State Circus (Ealing Common). It’s got a big top and suspension stunts. What’s not to like?

Mother Goose (Questors Theatre). Fun and boos and don’t look behind you!

We also saw Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott – formerly in The Beautiful South – and they were excellent.

Shows missed due to illness this year – Art, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Grand Mort, Salome, Julius Caesar and Ant & Cleo.


The Walk, 2015 – ★★★★

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perfect for the role of daredevil wire-walker Philippe Petit, who rigged up a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, shortly before the complex was fully open.

Written and filmed in both comedic style and 3D (I watched the standard version) this is clever, subversive, and just as mad as Petit’s stunt – although I would have enjoyed more work similar to the slow-mo shots, splashes of colour in a grey universe, or the Gilliamesque commentary of our hero out on the Statue of Liberty.

In support we have Ben Kingsley as a crotchety circus performer, Charlotte Le Bon as a street artist, and Steve Valentine as the man on the inside.

The WTC will always been synonymous with their destruction but here their height is something to celebrate and conquer.

An enjoyable film which utilises CGI to develop its universe, without spoiling the story arc. As for Petit, he was crazy enough to walk way above the streets of New York on a wire shot from a fishing line and a bow and arrow!

You can keep your Spiderman. This is what your real heroes are about.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Mother Goose (Questors Theatre)

We all know the pantomime traditions and tropes – the middle-aged man in numerous petticoats as the Dame, a young girl as the Principal Boy, popular songs, bad jokes, audience participation and healthy booing of the villains.

Up in town you have Julian Clary and Nigel Havers treading the boards, while Biggins is in Richmond, but in Ealing an accomplished cast of amateur players including a cute set of children keep the Judi Dench Playhouse audience entertained.

The key villain of Baron von Rumpensmakker  (ho ho) reminded me of Basil Rathbone in swashbuckler mode, and he and his Irish Gonk riding geese stirred memories of old Bernie Clifton’s ostrich.

A hard-working cast including some precocious children who are truly set for brighter things if fate and hard work allow keep things moving with the usual misdirection, sing-song, tap dance, and even a decorating routine worthy of the best of Charlie Drake.  The good fairy, the bad troll, and the wise old goose round off proceedings with a deep-voiced snow monster pulling the finale together.

The Questors is located on Mattock Lane behind Ealing Broadway.


Moscow State Circus (Ealing Common)

I can’t remember the last time I saw a circus.  It’s possible there were animals involved, very likely at the Tower in Blackpool.

Moscow State Circus – which has Russian and Eastern Bloc performers who are largely based in the West – has a lot of the spectacular routines we have become accustomed to through the likes of Cirque du Soleil.

There are clowns, a contortionist, a trapeze artist, an aerial hoop duo, a group of tumblers, a unicyclist, skipping bell boys, and more.  There may be a few cheesy moments and a few clown routines which don’t quite click, but the stunts are clever and often breathtaking.

See some highlights in the photos below.  The Circus continues at Ealing until January 7th, after which ‘Miracles’ tours around Britain.


Glengarry Glen Ross (Playhouse Theatre)

David Mamet’s sharp satirical play about real estate and the men who follow leads to coerce the lesser-off to spend money they don’t have on plots of land has a timely revival in the West End, this time under the direction of Sam Yates.

It’s an economical but coarse play, with the earthy language you might expect from cut-throat business conducted in restaurants or across kitchen tables furnished with shop-bought cakes masquerading as home-baked.

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Act One is set in a Chinese restaurant in Chicago, as we watch conversations between three pairings, introducing our core ensemble.

Shelly Levene (Stanley Townsend) was once a great salesman whose name always headed the firm’s results sheet, but he hasn’t delivered in a long while, and dud salesmen only get the dud leads; he tries to persuade office manager John Williamson (Kris Marshall) to help, but John is tough and hard, cynical and inflexible, and without the readies in advance he won’t give the old man a break.

Slightly later in the day, as the red lanterns start to give off a bit of light, and the sun outside sets, Dave Moss (Robert Glenister), a tough and jaded cookie, has a proposition for his more timid colleague, George Aaronow (Don Warrington), which moves from the theoretical to a practical plan to rob the firm and furnish the competition. George seems caught in a sophisticated trap as a supposed accessory.

And in the evening, confident and smug Richard Roma (Christian Slater) strikes up a chat with James Lingk (Daniel Ryan), a potential lead who can be played from the insecurities of his life to make a ‘wise’ investment.  Lingk, a man who probably has never taken a risk beyond taking off his coat on a mild day, is easily persuaded by sex talk and a concentration on his insecurities.

After a rather lengthy interval for a noisy set change, Act Two is set in the sprawling office in which the salesmen sweat for their closures and the chance to progress up the chalk board which records the money they make.

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Levene is full of an impossible deal he closed that morning, but the office has been robbed, and a cop is on site to tease out the culprit, which means each salesman gets their time out in the main room while others are under interrogation.  Roma has a visit from Lingk, who has slept on his decision and prompted by his cautious wife, wants out of his contract.  Tempers fray and unwise words are said.

Mamet’s gift in this play is in making the unlikeable likeable, and in making pauses, interjections, and profanities a natural part of character speech, making those characters believable.  Some actors work better with this than others; Marshall and Glenister are especially good, but Warrington’s accent wanders a bit and Townsend takes a while to warm to his part (but does well in Act Two).  I liked Slater’s outer calm which cracks in the office as he kicks the furniture, and his self-assuredness, but he doesn’t feel like a Hollywood star above the group of actors he is with; instead, he fits in without trying to snatch the attention.

Daniel Ryan is fine as Lingk, and Oliver Ryan makes the most of an investigator who clearly despises the salesmen and their setting.  The ending of the play, too, is a good one, and I’d forgotten it, having seen the film version some years ago and having missed the last stage revival.

Glengarry Glen Ross continues until the 3rd February 2018.

 


Book review: Strolling Player by Gabriel Hershman

Albert Finney was one of the young Northern actors who gained fame in the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the 1960s.  From Salford, and blessed with a memorable name few would associate with a movie star, he has shone in a parallel career on the stage, starting after RADA graduation with a spell with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Gabriel Hershman’s book is the second of three books focusing on British actors with interesting careers and private lives; we have already seen Ian Hendry profiled in Send in the Clowns – and next year we will see Hershman’s authorised biography on Nicol Williamson.

Strolling Player puts Finney centre stage, with an appraisal of his acting CV alongside anecdotes of a more personal nature; with this being a living subject you might have anticipated cooperation and an interview, but sadly that’s missing from the book: however, colleagues and friends fill the gap nicely and try to shed some light on the elusive actor.

Highly recommended to theatre and cinema fans, and those who have caught one of Finney’s rare television appearances. Hershman’s writing style is accessible and interesting and this is a fine addition to anyone’s biography shelf.

Strolling Player: the life and career of Albert Finney is available from The History Press, Amazon and some bookshop chains.


Big Fish (The Other Palace)

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Over at the rebranded The Other Palace (formerly St James’ Theatre), something rather magical is going on, with a bit of Broadway pizazz in this show of tall tales, misunderstandings, loss, redemption, daffodils, and fish.

Kelsey Grammer has been imported from the US to make his London stage debut in Andrew Lippa’s musical, itself based on the screenplay for the film (starring Albert Finney) written by John August, itself based on a novel by Daniel Wallace.

Edward Bloom is introduced at his straight-laced son’s wedding, shortly after they’ve been fishing. He’s been cautioned not to share his ‘stories’ or even make a toast, but of course, he doesn’t listen. Quickly, though, we realise that all is not well and that his son Will (Matthew Seadon-Young) will have to make sense of the man who he regards as a stranger and who is starting to slip away.

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While Edward slips in and out of consciousness, with his loving wife Sandra (Clare Burt) and new (and pregnant) daughter-in-law Josephine (Frances McNamee) close by, we meet his young self (Jamie Muscato) and follow him on wild adventures with a witch (Landi Oshinowo), a giant (Dean Nolan), and a circus supremo (Forbes Masson), as well as young Sandra (Laura Baldwin). These boast bizarre and big song and dance numbers – often pastiches – while the real-time/life scenes are more of the ballad type. Little Will is present for most of the time, too, and was played by Colby Mulgrew at the performance we saw; he reacts to the fun and the sadness around him and pulls us in.

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The set is simple enough, utilising sound effects and video projections to give us a sense of where we are, when outside the hospital ward.  A lovely act one closer gives us a stage full of daffodils, which were always Sandra’s favourite flowers, although we might not quite believe the story of how the young Edward and Sandra met.

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Some commentators on this show have scoffed at reports of audiences being moved by events as they unfold, but certainly at the evening performance I attended there were quite a few people dabbing their eyes, and rightly so, as the final scenes are deeply moving, and the effectiveness of this has to be laid at the door of director Nigel Harman and star Kelsey Grammer, who is simply superb in both the humorous and tragic scenes, as well as throwing himself into the boisterous song routines.

Incidentally, front row ticket holders may well get a closer encounter with Grammer than you might have bargained for, which was amusing in itself.  There’s some doubling of roles in a hard-working cast, with Oshinowo and Masson portraying two characters, while the smaller roles in ensemble are well-drawn.  The fantasy sequences are great, and Burt is quietly wonderful in a role which might have misfired, as is McNamee. I found Muscato had a lot of charm as young Edward, although it’s hard to think he grew up to turn into Frasier (still Grammer’s best-known role, and despite best efforts he doesn’t quite shake off memories of Seattle’s finest).

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If you want something which is ‘flipping’ marvellous, with a ‘sole’ and a good line in ‘cod’ philosophy, then make your way to The Other Palace for this short run; it is well worth your time and is definitely the ‘plaice’ to be.


Beginning (Dorfman, National Theatre)

As I type this up, a bit late as I saw last weekend’s matinee, it’s been confirmed that David Eldridge’s perceptive new play will transfer to the Ambassadors.

After seeing another two-hander, Heisenberg, recently, I found it interesting to compare the two, although Beginning takes place in real-time, in the early hours of the morning after Laura’s housewarming party in Crouch End (in ‘the pesto triangle’).

Danny has been left behind as his mates have picked up a taxi and he fancied another beer, and as it turns out, he might fancy the slightly prickly Laura as well. She in turn is up for sex but not really for anything long-term that includes Danny.

So the play ventures from believable awkward talk, to family revelations, the making of fish-finger sandwiches, a flat clean-up and an awkward bit of making out. 

As Laura, Justine Mitchell didn’t quite ring true for me, making me feel her stories of being an MD and of being in a ten-year long previous relationship a bit suspect.
Sam Troughton is more assured as the divorced Danny, who may well be telling tall tales himself to get into this lady’s knickers as quickly as he can – batting away her dreamy description of how the encounter might slowly pan out.

There is a minimal two-room set – table, sofa, beanbag, oven, cupboards. Music is provided before the curtain rises, with wine bottles setting the scene with a nightclub feel, and during one scene via iPod playlist.

The dialogue is sharp and balances cultural references (Strictly) with informal vulgar language. It presents these two people, either side of the cusp of forty, of anything but assured but fairly financially solvent.

Well worth watching, and although it might benefit from a slight trim, the Dorfman pit seats were comfy and there’s a working clock within the set so you can keep tabs on the play’s duration.


Heisenberg (Wyndham’s)

Your enjoyment of this clever drama by Simon Stephens may depend on whether or not you find the idea of a 42 year old woman and a 75 year old man having an intimate relationship acceptable, and whether you find the performances of Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham convincing.

The acting is top notch in this tale which utilises a simple set of tables, chairs and bed which rise and disappear from and into the floor as required.  We get to know Georgie and Alex from their first meeting at a train station, where she impulsively kisses him on the neck and then spins tall tales about her life.

This vibrant American woman has troubles and regrets in her life, and yet it feels OK that she feels herself drawn to the lonely, elderly butcher who loves tango dancing and who is haunted by the memories of both his dead sister and his lost love.

This is a moving piece by its close, even if the bedroom scene feels a little uncomfortable at first.  We understand this pair, thrown together by life, she bored by her mundane job, he lifted up by the whole string of musical genres he reels off when asked about his taste.

The plot may stretch credulity a bit, but the companionable chemistry between the leads keeps this short two-hander constantly interesting.

It is currently set to run until January 2018, and there is good availability at most prices.

 


Wings (Young Vic)

Juliet Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, a former wing-walker who has had a stroke and is trapped in a mind which stops her making associations and causes her to speak a babble which makes perfect sense to her but not anyone else around her.

Over a two-year period, this 80 minute play follows Mrs Stilson (we never see her husband, but see her son, briefly) as she starts to make more sense and to make more than transient contact with the world around her.

One moving platform, some see-through curtains, a minimal use of projections, and stellar light work which projects Stevenson’s shadow as she flies, means that the one flashy conceit – our wing-walker spends the vast majority of the play airbourne in a harness doing a staggering range of acrobatic moves that must be as tiring as remembering the complex script – the play has to offer takes most of the attention.

An uplifting play of hope, memory, and language, this is its first revival in the UK for thirty years.  It is a moving and clever play which may not be everyone’s idea of a fun night out, but which I recommend you make time to see.  


Girl From The North Country (Old Vic)

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This play by Conor McPherson, with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, is emphatically not a musical, nor it is a jukebox selection of greatest hits.  Instead, it is a play set in the era of the Depression, with many storylines intertwining, some succeeding and taking flight, some so ephemeral they disappear into thin air.

Into this play are inserted a number of Dylan songs written between 1963 and 2012, which the characters perform to the audience rather than to each other, giving the production a dream quality and the songs a route into the minds and thoughts of the characters who cannot admit them to themselves or each other.

Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds) runs a boarding house, which he rents while he fast runs out of money, and he lives there with his wife, Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson), who has dementia and a lack of inhibition, and who told him, shortly before her mind was broken, that she didn’t love him.

He seeks solace with a young widow, Mrs Neilsen (Debbie Kurrup), who waits for a legacy from her marriage that might never come, and shares the confined space of his decaying abode with feckless son Gene (Sam Reid), and adopted black daughter, Marianne (Sheila Atim), who is mysteriously with child and set to be married off to a local elderly and lonely tradesman, Mr Perry (Jim Norton).

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There’s an ‘Our Town’ type narrator, the local doctor (Ron Cook), a bickering couple (Stanley Townsend and Bronagh Gallagher) with a son with learning difficulties (Jack Shalloo), and a couple of drifters: one a Bible bashing blackmailer, Rev Marlowe (Michael Schaeffer), and the other a pugilist with aggression in his soul, Joe Scott (Arinze Kene), who take up residence with the Laines.

Hinds doesn’t sing.  He’s the only cast member who doesn’t even join in the group numbers, and this seems deliberate to emphasise his isolation from the rest of the characters (either that, or he really can’t hold a tune!).  His Nick should draw more sympathy than he does; I found his vocal delivery sometimes veered towards the shouty, and that’s a shame when I have seen him do far more nuanced work in other plays and on television.

Bronagh Gallagher, who I remember playing Minnie in a TV production of Shadow of a Gunman many years ago, is absolutely terrific as the ignored wife and devastated mother.  She’s a dab hand on the drums too.  Shirley Henderson, too, is totally convincing as the lost spirit, and the soaring, shining spark which comes alive in song (notably Like a Rolling Stone and Forever Young).

I remain unconvinced by some of the plot points, such as why Gene would react in such a racist way to Joe when he has grown up with a black girl as his sister; in fact I felt the story might be taking a much more sinister turn than it eventually did.  Also I did not really feel engaged with his lost love story with Kate Draper (Claudia Jolly), although their duet of I Want You was delicious.

Norton gives yet another superb performance as Mr Perry, who remembers ‘a warm light and a smile’ from his married days, and who seems to have genuine concern and affection for Marianne.  His character is poignant, but he also seems to enjoy singing and dancing in those ensemble numbers.

Cook’s character is more problematic; he is good, but seems superfluous, and I really thought his closing monologue was not needed.  I would have much preferred a fade to black after Elizabeth’s final line.  There’s one standout musical number and performance, but to reveal what and who would spoil a major plot point, so I will leave you to see and enjoy it.

The use of Dylan songs is clever, and it shows that complete artistic control was seded to McPherson and his team: I felt that Slow Train and Hurricane were particular high points.  In a simple set, with instruments of the period, you could summarise this production as being performed by a hard-working cast, but with too many loose threads, with some excellent nuggets here and there (two marriages showing their cracks, people pretending to be what they are not, people being accused of things they didn’t do), and an excellent use of light, shadow and space in the musical numbers.

Girl From The North Country ran at the Old Vic until the 7th October 2017.  A cast recording of the musical numbers has been released on CD and for streaming on Spotify.

The West End transfer of the show, with most original cast members, will run from the 29th December 2017 to the 24th March 2018 at the Noel Coward Theatre.  More information is available at Seatplan.


The Piano, 1993 – ★★★★★ (contains spoilers)

This review may contain spoilers.

My first viewing of this film since about 2010, and it still warms my heart with its sensuality, silence, and sexual intrigue.

Holly Hunter plays the mute Ada, who communicates with her daughter (Anna Paquin) in sign language; they’re shipped out from Scotland to New Zealand as Ada has been all but sold, sight unseen, to Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), a man who is straight-laced and repressed.

Ada has one love in her life, a full-sized piano which has travelled with her on the ‘stinking tub’ which has churned her across the ocean. White as porcelain, Ada’s dark expressive eyes and small stature looks swamped and lost in the wilds and the sea.

We first meet George Baines here (Harvey Keitel), an Englishman who has turned native and who displays, early, the empathy that Stewart lacks – the husband sees only a ‘stunted’ woman, but Baines recognises her as ‘tired’ and so he finds a connection to her from the first.

Jane Campion’s direction and Michael Nyman’s beautiful music lift this lush and unusual romance, in which there is barbarity, nudity, and sheer eroticism. It was my introduction to Keitel’s work and it is probably the highest point of his career, giving a complex (and on the surface, unsavoury) character a heart and fire that, slowly, surely, opens up Ada’s reserve and breathes life back into her broken soul.

Paquin, aged just ten years old, was fantastic as Flora, her mother’s voice and a constant watcher and interpreter of life around her. Quite rightly, she took the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, while Hunter won the Best Actress Award, the film won Best Picture, and Campion won Best Screenplay (but sadly not Director, no woman would win that for a further sixteen years).

There’s a lovely and hot scene in the film where Baines and Ada make love while Stewart watches through a gap in the wall; as he has no intimacy with his wife (and indeed, recoils from it when she instigates, with curiosity, a sensual touch) he is jealous and angry, but it was the piano which led Ada to Baines, through a business arrangement which turned to love rather than making her ‘a whore’ and him ‘wretched’.

The ending, for me, still feels wrong, and I would have been happy with Campion’s original idea of letting Ada go to the bottom of the ocean with her beloved piano, rather than starting a new life with Baines. But either version works just as well.

A masterpiece of eroticism, this remains Campion’s best feature, and it is beautifully detailed; there is a core tension which is heightened by the silence, by the music which is Ada’s song into the world (if we believe Flora, she had been an opera singer before trauma and widowhood), and ultimately there is a joy in the way Stewart’s misunderstanding and meddling gives his wife her chance of happiness.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


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