Category Archives: theatre

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.


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.


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.


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.


Follies (National Theatre, Olivier)

Stephen Sondheim’s bittersweet musical of theatreland gone by has its first major revival in London in years, and the book by James Goldman has now been returned fairly closely to the original plot, with the songs added for the 1987 revival dropped and the likes of ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ and ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ returned to their rightful place.

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The set is a depiction of the decayed and partly demolished Weissman Theatre, where the neon still works but the walls are crumbling, the seats are distressed, and the auditorium is ruined.  For me, the opening scene and prologue takes too long to introduce everyone, but that would be true of every version of this show, and it is certainly touching to see the mature showgirls descend the ‘staircase’ (in reality, a less-than-glamorous fire escape) one last time, while their younger selves move in ghostly sequins and sparkles in from the stage.

This show is very much about those ladies who graced the Weissman Follies between the two World Wars, and although we are more focused on the story of two of them – Sally (Imelda Staunton), and Phyllis (Janie Dee) – we still feel invested in the others, from Carlotta the movie star (Tracie Bennett, done up as Joan Crawford in stern red, and decaying from despair, drink, and dallying with young men who ‘mean nothing’), ageing opera diva Heidi (Josephine Barstow, whose delicate depiction of sad memories of an affair with the boss, Mr Weissman (Gary Raymond, who makes an sobering impact in a nothing part, as lost in time as his girls), is as touching as her faded soprano voice in ‘One Last Kiss’, a duet with her younger self, played by Alison Langer), to the much-married and knowing Hattie (Di Boutcher, who knocks ‘Broadway Baby’ out of the park from the moment she removes her glasses, but who is surely far too young for the part), and the rather sad Solange (Geraldine Fitzgerald, with her memories of ‘Paree’).

Staunton has shone in a couple of award-winning Sondheims already – from 2012’s glorious ‘Sweeney Todd’, to 2015’s ‘Gypsy‘.  Further back she was a stunning Miss Adelaide in ‘Guys and Dolls’, so she has the musical credentials, and as an Oscar Best Actress nominee for ‘Vera Drake’, she is also known as a talented actress.  Both skills serve her well as Sally Plummer, a tiny housewife with a salesman husband, Buddy (Peter Forbes), who is cheating on her, and dreams which have never died for her former lover, Ben (Philip Quast, always a favourite of mine, and I’m delighted to see him back in a leading role), who rejected her for her friend Phyllis (perhaps sensing she would be more acceptable material for a politician’s wife).

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This Weissman reunion brings Sally and Ben back together for the first time in thirty years, and in ‘Don’t Look At Me’, Staunton attempts to make a connection which leads Ben to think back to the girl he used to know (Alex Young, who made such an impact in the ENO’s ‘Carousel‘ this summer, as Carrie, and previously in the New London’s ‘Show Boat’), and to look, for a moment, kindly on the disturbed and clingy woman she has become.  When Quast and Staunton duet in ‘Too Many Mornings’, there is a glorious blend of music, memories, and the magic of what could-have-been, however transient that feeling may be.  Staunton may be a little short, height-wise, for the pivotal kiss which she takes as a way out of her boring life with the Buddy she has ceased to see, but we do engage with their relationship from this point on.

Janie Dee’s Phyllis is the textbook example of a rich socialite whose life is totally empty, with a nice house bursting at the seams with ‘the Chagalls and all that’, but lacking love, attention, or the children she so desperately wanted.  She has grown so tired of life, that her ‘Would I Leave You’ is perfectly delivered and completely believable; theirs is a marriage of convenience that doesn’t even feel convenient anymore.  But yet, in the end, she is the one who shows the most strength, and who will, we feel, at least attempt to pick up the pieces.  Her younger shadow is played by the dazzling Zizi Strallen, who has the star quality and energy which must have turned the young Ben’s head while he and Buddy were ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’.

follies-national-theatre-r007Liz Izen, Liz Ewing, Tracie Bennett, Imelda Staunton, Dawn Hope, Janie Dee, Julie Armstrong, Gemma Page – rehearsal photo by Johan Persson

Peter Forbes is Buddy, a salesman who is really no good, and who calls anywhere he lays his hat home.  His routine involves going out on the road to shack up with Margie, a bright young thing who idolises him (the character always makes me think of ‘Death of a Salesman’ and Willy Loman, who is stuck in a spiral of not quite reaching the American Dream), and then returning to Sally, who fantasises that in his eyes she’s ‘young and beautiful’.  Their marriage has children, but they have moved away to escape their mother’s neuroses and arguments, so you can imagine the echoes of their empty rooms where the boys once played and fought.

The last section of the show moves from the realism of the crumbling theatre of the past to a fantasy staging of ‘Loveland’, a sequence which I always find problematic, but which brings the young quartet to the fore (as well as Young and Strallen, the young Ben and Buddy are played well by Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig) before moving into the individual follies of each as they are now: Buddy, dealing with a drag depiction of his mixed love-life done in a vaudevillian style; Sally, in a blonde wig and a sumptuous dressing room, ‘losing her mind’; Phyllis, in old and young versions, doing as well as she can to tell us about Lucy and Jessie; and Ben’s Fred Astaire pastiche which collapses into an emotional breakdown.  Although I love ‘Losing My Mind’, and Staunton did it well, this whole sequence remains a problem, and as much as I admire Quast, and he did all he could with the number, the breakdown felt rushed to me, which may well have been a directorial mis-step.

What else?  Bennett channels Judy Garland (again, but beautifully) in the caustic ‘I’m Still Here’.  The mirror number ‘Who’s That Woman’ weirdly has the young chlorines not mirroring their older counterparts, and I felt in this case the Royal Albert Hall concert did this number better (although I did like Dawn Hope’s Stella, and the chance to see Liz Izen’s Deedee in the line-up).  Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah are fun, and poignant, as the Whitmans.

This may not be a perfect revival, but it is a great show, and it is rare to see something done on this scale, with so much love and energy – an emotional powerhouse, with eminently hummable tunes.

Do go, and also grab a copy of the fantastic programme, which is full of information, articles, and pictures and can be yours for just a fiver.

 

 


The Mentor (Vaudeville Theatre)

I caught this on its final day, the matinee performance, having noted some decidedly mixed reviews.

Daniel Kehlmann’s play has been translated from the German by veteran writer and translator Christopher Hampton, and I found it a funny, biting satire on the profession of being a writer.

Moving into London via Bath, the play has failed to find a respectable audience, which is a shame as it is largely a series of accomplished two-hander scenes.  F Murray Abraham is the star name, and for those of us who recall his Oscar winning turn in ‘Amadeus’ he is still a considerable draw as the abrasive, arrogant and charming Benjamin Rubin, who has only written one play of note, rarely produced and only read in schools, with a paranoia about TV radiation and an inflated perception of his own worth as a mentor.

He has been hired to mentor ‘the voice of his generation’ (so called by a bipolar critic who ended his life after filing his review), Martin Wegner, a puffed up joke of a man who has been practically bribed into the week by money, finding himself taken aback by Rubin’s only questions about his play being the font it was typed in and the occasional spelling mistake.  He is played well by Daniel Weyman, who convinces as a writer out of his comfort zone.

Wegner has an art historian wife, Greta (played by Suzy Bloom in the performance I saw); she resents her husband living off her earnings and not contributing anything to the housework, and seems too easily swayed by Rubin once they have drunk a few cheap whiskies together (not the kind he constantly tells us is the best in Scotland).  Do they, or don’t they?  And if they do, isn’t the age gap just that bit too wide for decency?

The final cast member is a scene-stealer, Jonathan Cullen as Erwin Rudicek, a camp arts administrator who reveres his guests, but soon decides what he wants is to make a killing with his ‘mood compositions’ which he carries around in his phone gallery.

With a simple yet effective set, with falling blossoms and stone chairs shaped as hards, this play sets awards, frogs, a soggy manuscript, a red pencil, a bottle of whiskey, and a girl fan who falls for her hero while her marriage stutters to a stop, within a glitzy opening of Wegner accepted an award named after the now deceased Rubin, and a closing scene of Rubin himself channelling Wegner’s play ‘Without A Title’ in returning after falling off the perch to give us a last bit of wisdom about whisky.

I liked this play a lot.  An enjoyable piece which, at eighty minutes, was probably slight and short enough.


The Tempest (RSC at the Barbican)

I’ve seen Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ on at least six occasions (including Ian McKellen at Leeds, Derek Jacobi at Sheffield, and London appearances from Patrick Stewart, Antony Sher and Roger Allam at The Globe).

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It’s a magical romance which concerns the deposed Duke of Milan (here played by the reliable Simon Russell Beale, himself a former stage Ariel), who is shipwrecked on an island ‘full of noises’ with his daughter Miranda; here they live with his library of books, a monstrous creature named Caliban who they keep as servant, and an airy sprite called Ariel who gives service to his master in anticipation of gaining his freedom.

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Gregory Doran’s production is one of flashy technical and digital effects, in collaboration with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios, including a 3D representation of Ariel – although I found this more distracting than anything else, as the actor playing the part (and causing the body movements of the character) was on stage in all his scenes. However, the technical effects ranging from the light and sound giving the impression of a moving ship at the beginning of act one, a huge depiction of slavering dogs, and the memory of Ariel’s imprisonment in the cloven pine, were impressive.

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Joe Dixon’s Caliban and Mark Quartley’s Ariel were very memorable and touching, balanced out well by the comedy of Simon Trinder’s sinister Trinculo and James Hayes’ Stephano (although the ‘two-legged monster’ routine could have been funnier than it was).  For me, Jenny Rainsford took a while to come into her own as Miranda, and I didn’t feel connected to her until the ‘brave new world’ speech near the end, and Daniel Easton’s Ferdinand was bland and uninteresting.

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Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero is the highlight of this production, his small, stocky statute mirrored by that of Jonathan Broadbent’s little ball of hatred as his brother Antonio.  What this Prospero brings to the text is sometimes missed by his colleagues, and the final speech is truly touching as the audience is released (‘let your indulgence set me free’) – if this was Shakespeare’s way of saying goodbye to his beloved theatre, it is an effective one.

 


Half a Sixpence (Noel Coward Theatre)

You may recall the jaunty film in which Tommy Steele hopped around with a gor-blimey accent, and this uses many of the songs from it, but with some new lyrics and seven new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.  So, confusingly, this is a musical with eleven songs by the original composer and lyricist David Heneker, from a book by Beverley Cross, with a kind-of new book by Julian Fellowes … and of course based on ‘Kipps’, by HG Wells!

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Charlie Stemp is on leave, so Arthur Kipps is currently being played by Sam O’Rourke, whose infectious energy brings the draper’s apprentice who comes into money sharply to life.  His childhood sweetheart Ann, who holds the ‘half a sixpence’ of the opening song, is played by Devon-Elise Johnson, who convinces as a gawky thirteen year-old as well as a growing women fighting her jealousy and irritation as Arthur becomes sideswept by his attraction to posh Helen (Emma Williams).

The toffs are fun, especially in a new number ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’, and Ian Bartholomew offers good comic support as a Dickensian theatrical named Mr Chitterlow.  There is a lot of leaping, swinging and boisterousness, and this is definitely a musical in which you can just sit back and be entertained.

Others worth mentioning – John Foster is a joy as both Kipps’ stodgy employer and Lady Punnet’s butler; while Jane How is very funny indeed as Lady P.  Gerard Carey was better as the photographer in the ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ number than he was as crooked James, and Vivien Parry was all decaying aristocracy as Mrs Walsingham.   Alex Hope as the idealistic socialist Sid and Bethany Huckle as lovestruck Flo were very good, too, and I enjoyed the new duet which gave insight into the feelings both Ann and Flo seem to hold for Arthur.

Running to early September, this is warmly recommended if you want an evening of fun, and if you can get to see O’Rourke have his moment in the spotlight, please do.


Penn & Teller  (Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith)

They’re back in the UK.  Penn – the big, loud one who has lost both his bulk and mop of frizzy long hair in recent years – and Teller, the little, mute one, are celebrating forty years together as a magic duo this year with a show chock-full of old favourites and new tricks.


With the usual formula of audience participation, manipulation, and a healthy helping of lying, stealing and cheating, the Vegas-based illusionists bring a bit of fairy dust and sparkle to a very hot Hammersmith night.

Teller’s sweet pantomime ‘Shadows’ remains strangely beautiful, and the coin and fish trick remains impressive even when you click how it’s done.  ‘Cell Fish’ is clever but based very much on misdirection and willing stagehands; while a barrel in which the 6ft 7in Penn has crushed himself makes everyone want to stretch their legs.

A new trick which seems to depend on advanced maths brings the whole audience into a ‘Find Love’ card game, while Teller displays a skilfull sleight of hand with a set of animal traps, before accidentally toppling their faithful rabbit into an industrial shredder.

An enjoyable night from true professionals who operate with the slickness of a corporate machine.  Penn seems to have mellowed with marriage, children and a move away from his beloved Slammer with the pleasure jacuzzi he developed with former partner Debbie Harry, although his abrasive stage persona could still peel the paint off walls.

It’s the simplest of tricks which still fox, though: a cup which regenerates coloured balls, an egg which appears and disappears from a bag.  Basic magic without the trappings of show.


Lettice and Lovage (Menier Chocolate Factory)

This revival of Peter Shaffer’s 1980s play is one of two productions running at the Menier at the moment, both directed by Trevor Nunn.  It is the story of a theatrical tour guide who embellishes historical fact to entertain those who visit Fustion House (‘fusty old house’, in our minds).

The first scene is replayed four times across a fifteen minute slot, in which Miss Douffet makes the most of an Elizabethan legend on an old staircase, delivered in an exaggerated stage voice.  Douffet is played by Felicity Kendal, who wears loud and vibrant clothes and has tattoos on her foot and ankle.

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Her over-the-top style gets her in trouble twice, first with a tetchy historian who asks for her sources, then with a civil servant who commands her presence in the offices of the Preservation Society.  This is the staid Miss Schoen, whose father was a German art publisher, but who hates theatrics.  She’s played by Maureen Lipman, who is stiffly arch, especially in her exchanges with twittery secretary Petra Markham.

The turning point comes with a very unconvincing prop cat, and a wildly addictive drink which contains the herb lovage.  It turns Miss Douffet almost human (and we discover her forename is Lettice), and allows Miss Schoen to unbend as she becomes more tipsy (and her forename is Charlotta).  Lettice talks of her mother who played both Richard III and Falstaff – with utilisation of the same pillow for costume.  Lotte tells of a bomb plot she and a boyfriend had in their youth to destroy the hated Shell Building.

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The final act is bizarre, with Sam Dastor as a solicitor defending Miss Douffet (she engages him because his name is Bardolph, which suggests something rather different to the reserved man we see before us).  It would spoil the fun to say why she has been arrested and charged, and we are caught up in an amusing piece of roleplay re-enacted for us in the final few minutes.

This is not a ground-breaking play, but it is acted well, and is a perfectly reasonable piece of entertainment.  I liked the relative simplicity of the sets, which include a picture frame which showcases the sense of where we are (the exterior of Fustion House, the terraces of Earl’s Court), and found the performances on point for the ridiculous plot.


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter Theatre)

It must be Edward Albee year around the Haymarket area of London, with both The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? and this play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, running in high profile revivals within a few yards of each other.

This is by far the better known of the two plays, perhaps due to the 1966 film featuring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as George and Martha, and it is wearing its years well, with its cat and mouse domestic power games and the young guests trapped like rabbits in headlights, appalled but almost unable to get up and leave.

In this production Imelda Staunton plays Martha, a sarcastic, gin-swilling, braying, frustrated, pathetic shadow of the girl she must have been during the war years in which George courted her.  Now she – as she admits in one revelatory moment – repels his kindness, attention and love with insults, clawing, and hatred.

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

Conleth Hill is absolutely superb as George, who has been squashed and silenced for so long that the bitterness has grown and simmered under a sad surface.  He’s a man who perhaps once had ambition to lead and rule, but the years have got to him.  Six years younger than Martha, he looks fifteen years older, with a careworn air and a resignation to the life fate has dealt him.

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

Into their gameplay come a young biologist who has recently joined the college, a blond muscleman who has a clear career trajectory and a healthy dose of contempt for those around him, and his mousy wife who drinks to mask her unhappiness at being unable to conceive or cope with the social demands of her world.  Luke Treadaway plays the young blade Nick who is played to perfection by the older couple as they have done so many times before; while Imogen Poots is tragically wan as his constantly upchucking wife, Honey, who has a love for brandy which might yet turn her into a Martha.

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

This is a wordy play, but one in which each word has weight and meaning, and the full effect is one of an emotional rollercoaster by the end of act three.  Starting as something of a black comedy, there are laughs to be found through the earlier scenes (trying to identify a Bette Davis movie) which quickly turn into something much more uncomfortable with the arrival of the guests and the games people play.  There was mainly pin-drop silence in the final scenes, which were beautifully done.

This is a sensational revival full of screams, shouts, spittle, smoking, sadness and occasional silence.  James Macdonald directs with a sense of space and occasion, with the one living room set and a number of off-set locations (upstairs, the downstairs cloakroom, the kitchen).  The language has perhaps been a little ripened since the original (the opening salvo to the young couple of ‘screw you’ has become rather stronger) but the meat of the piece is there.

I saw this from the front row so every nuance of gesture, reaction, or interaction was captured, giving the feeling that we were almost additional trapped guests ourselves.  As an honest depiction of two marriages this play gives us much food for thought, conjuring up images of the youthful George and Martha before life and circumstance trapped them, and a vision into the future to what awaits Nick and Honey.

Be quick if you want to see this as final performances are on Saturday 27th May.


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