Tag Archives: national theatre

Amadeus (National Theatre, Olivier)

This production of Peter Shaffer’s play came to a close last night, but returns to the National in 2018, so don’t despair if you missed out this time.

The Oscar-winning film, made in 1984, might be the version most people know of this play, but that was considerably opened out with some plot points changed.  F Murray Abraham gained a Best Actor win for his performance as Salieri, the Court Composer who wished to remain as immortal as his professional foe, the childish yet supremely gifted Mozart.  Mozart himself was played by Tom Hulce, who gave the role a considered amount of pathos alongside the hyper crudeness of the man.

I mention all this because I rate the film as one of my all-time favourites.  I have seen the play performed before, at the Theatre Royal York, fourteen years ago, with Malcolm Rennie as Salieri and Daniel Hart as Mozart, in a production directed by Tim Luscombe.  Looking back now, it seems the press didn’t think much of it, and it was presented very much as an intimate monologue by a man well aware of his own mediocrity.

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The National’s revival, directed by Michael Longhurst, is a large-scale production which uses the Olivier’s drum revolve as an orchestra pit, presents dance versions of Mozart’s greatest pieces, and suffers from an absolutely ghastly performance from Adam Gillen as the precocious composer who crashes about, pouting, posturing, gurning, and lisping, throughout.  Some may argue this is the part ‘as written’ but it has no colour, no gradients, no balance, and as such is a fatal flaw in the play for me.  You may wish to laugh at Mozart or even cringe at his foul-mouthed excesses, but when the play turns tragic and the final scenes require pathos, I didn’t get any sense of it.

 

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Lucian Msamati plays Salieri, and, some curious accent choices aside (if you’re playing Italian you either play it throughout, or don’t bother), he is very good indeed, whether ingratiating himself with the audience, or raging at the God who has left him with the ambition to achieve fame, but has bestowed only an average talent, destined to be forgotten.

His ravings as an old man, wheelchair-bound, and stating that he killed the great composer Mozart, is not believed, and so in obscurity his name will remain.  I didn’t care for the modern-dress staging of the early scenes, where the orchestra (Southbank Sinfonia, who are wonderful) take selfies on their phones, and Salieri takes a pause to guzzle Krispy Kremes.

But the music – and the set staging for these pieces – can forgive a great deal and elevate a middling and long-winded production into something rather more.  You may agree with Tom Edden’s Joseph II, who complains that there are ‘too many words’, but I guarantee you will be moved by the Kyrie from the Requiem.


Lost Without Words (National Theatre)

On the look for something a bit different, I went to see ‘Lost Without Words’ yesterday evening.  It’s a co-production between the National Theatre and Improbable, a company who work heavily on improvised pieces.

In this case the actors are a group of veterans all over seventy.  Caroline Blakiston, Lynn Farleigh, Georgine Anderson, Anna Calder-Marshall, Tim Preece, and Charles Kay (although he did not appear last night).  They are gently prompted and given suggestions by the directors (Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott) who are on the stage, and there are additional people improvising lighting, sound, and musical accompaniments.

lostforwordsimageTim Preece, Anna Calder-Marshall, Caroline Blakiston, Lynn Farleigh.  Photo by Atri Banerjee.

I really liked it.  It ran for an hour and I think we had six different scenes.  The first was a mother and daughter at the beach, eating fish and chips, then swimming (Farleigh and Anderson did this one, with some nice work relating to Anderson’s reappearing walking stick).

Then a ‘game’ where the letter s could not be included, which was played as a father emigrating with work and his daughter worrying about it, with slips from both getting oohs from the audience (Preece and Calder-Marshall).  Following that a piece between two people who have lived together a long time but still find everything interesting, at breakfast (“Marmite toast!”), which turned out to be two sisters plus a ghostly visit from mum when one sister had gone for a lie down (Calder-Marshall and Blakiston, plus Farleigh at the end).

A piece where a couple trade wishes and have the last dance of their lives under a conveniently descending glitterball (Preece and Farleigh).  A group scene for a birthday which ended up hinting at cross-dressing and a lovely line about being allergic to rabbit skin (all five).  And a largely solo piece including a brokenly sung aria about love, with a ghostly husband visiting at the end (Blakiston, and briefly Preece).

It was a joy to watch this group of actors at work in a playful, funny, and ultimately touching piece about relationships, age, and dreams.  It is, apparently, totally unscripted, so there were prompts like “this is called Mum decides to swim for the first time”, “one of you says they feel tired and are going for a lie down, leaving this character alone”, “this is the last dance of their lives”, “you were singing something then and it was lovely, so let it come out”, etc.

It doesn’t feel forced or fake, and is beautifully performed.  I’m assuming each show is unique given the improvising aspect.

It plays until the 18th of March and if this sounds like your kind of thing, do check it out.


Twelfth Night (National Theatre)

Gender-bending in Shakespeare is nothing new.  We have had female Hamlets (Frances de La Tour, Maxine Peake), Lears (Kathryn Hunter, Glenda Jackson), Richard IIs (Fiona Shaw), Henry IVs (Harriet Walter), Prosperos (Helen Mirren), and even Horatios and Poloniuses on film.  Last year I saw a gender-flipped Taming of the Shrew with the male roles played by women, and the female roles by men.

Twelfth Night itself has been played by an all-male cast before, and here we have women playing the roles of Malvolia (Malvolio), Feste, and Fabia (Fabian), together with an obviously signposted gay Antonio (Adam Best – his suggested meeting place for Sebastian is a bar which has leather types and a Kinky Boots Lola-lite drag singer).   It gives a freshness to the story of the twins who believe each other lost at sea, and the choice of Viola to assume a male identity as one Cesario, in which guise both Olivia, and Orsino, fall in love with her.

tn1Tamsin Grieg and Doon Mackichan, image by Marc Brenner.

Tamsin Greig is top-billed as Malvolia, who spends most of the early part of the play as a Mrs Danvers-type of overbearing lesbian housekeeper, with a severe hairstyle which befits her station.  As the plot progresses we have a delicious piece of comedy with the letter scene, where she ends up cavorting in the garden’s fountain, a dark interlude where she is imprisoned and tortured by Sir Toby and cohorts, and a final reveal and climb during ‘The Wind and the Rain’.  Greig gives life to the often-thankless role of the steward, and we feel truly sorry for her at the end.

The set design of this production (Soutra Gilmour, James Farncombe, Christopher Shutt) is truly inspired, dominated by two staircases which move and morph, utilising the Olivier’s drum revolve beautifully, and by water features which appear and disappear (the fountain, a swimming pool into which Olivia hauls Cesario, and an eventual fall of rain).  The lighting and the sound are both excellent, from the chandelier which comes down to signpost an opulent living space, to the distant thump of the beatbox to which Toby and his drunken friends carouse while Malvolia watches Olivia sleep.

Orsino (Oliver Chris) is largely played for laughs, although his maturity is signposted by a 40th birthday party scene in which Viola/Cesario first realises her love for him (and he for her/him?).  Sir Toby (Tim McMullan) is a bawdy drunk, but not a Falstaff-like one – he cuts a fine dash in his swimming trunks and in a certain light might even be called attractive.  Sir Andrew (Daniel Rigby, who was so memorable as the young Eric Morecambe on television), is a hipster who shows both his active side (raucous dancing moves), and his softer side (hugging the teddy bear Orsino gave to Olivia at the bus stop in the closing scene of the play).

twelfth-night-2017-12Daniel Ezra and Adam Best, image by Marc Brenner.

Viola and Sebastian don’t really look like each other – she’s smaller and slighter – but Tamara Lawrence has a youthful swagger that might pass for a young man trying out his muscles, and Daniel Ezra does well in the scenes with Antonio, and where he recognises his thought-dead sister.  Phoebe Fox is a fine Olivia, nominally in mourning for her brother but given to boogieing when she thinks no one is looking, and her anger at the deception which has cruelly wronged Malvolia feels real.  Niky Wardley is Maria, with her nose and cheeks coloured by red lipstick in the drinking scene, and she’s good.

Imogen Doel is Fabia, Doon Mackichan has the tricky role of Feste, and although she has a great singing voice, the comedy of the part is lost (I don’t think the gender change is a successful one here).  Simon Godwin directs, and this adaptation goes on for three hours, but feels less.

I’d call it a definite success, which brings out the emotional heart of the play as well as the broad comedy underneath.

tn3Daniel Rigby and Niky Wardley, image by Marc Brenner.

Twelfth Night runs at the Olivier, National Theatre, until 13th May 2017.


Hedda Gabler (National Theatre)

Ibsen’s difficult late play comes to the National Theatre in a new version by Patrick Marber, directed by Ivo van Hove.  In a modern production, set in one white box, minimally furnished, and airless except for one window (adding to the oppression of the story), it begins with two figures already on stage, one sitting motionless on a chair to the side, and one playing the piano, occasionally flinging themselves forward on to the keys in frustration or despair.

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The former is the maid, Berte (Éva Magyar), who throughout the play is present, seeing everything along with the audience, but ignoring all just as she is largely ignored.  The latter is the titular Hedda Gabler (Ruth Wilson), newly married to academic Dr Tesman (Kyle Soller, here using his American accent rather than the one we have grown used to in his appearances as the doomed Francis Poldark on television) but bored and without purpose.

“Academics are no fun!” she whines, and even stapleguns flowers to the walls when she is particularly fed up.  Not for this new bride the glow of happiness – even the expensive house she now lives in is theirs purely through a quirk of fate, a caprice that made Tesman think she had “set her heart on it.”  She is trapped in circumstances she is powerless to change, in a cage from which she can not break free.

For Tesman’s part he can’t believe his luck, not just that the General’s daughter has chosen him, but that he has “special access” to her body.  This makes him just as unsympathetic a character as their supposed friend, Brack (Rafe Spall) who is a smooth but repellent sexual predator who, in the final few scenes of the play, defiles and abuses Hedda in a most appalling and shocking way, helped by an inspired use of prop design to provide the gore often missing from this play.

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Hedda Gabler is a proud woman, but not in any way a nice one.  She torments her school friend, Mrs Elsted (Sinéad Matthews) and ruins her life, under the cloak of supposed kindness.  She goads the weak-willed career rival of her husband’s, Lovborg, her former lover, into desolation and destruction while fantasizing of the beauty of his “wearing vine leaves in his hair”.  She lies, cheats, manipulates, and destroys.  She is a viper in her words, too, hurting the kindly but interfering Tesman aunt (Kate Duchêne), and pushing away her devoted husband.

This production may rely too much on musical interludes (‘Blue’ by Joni Mitchell appears several times, and ‘Hallelujah’ the Leonard Cohen song, as rendered by Jeff Buckley – but clumsily edited – cuts into one scene), but its sparseness and the decision to stage much of the action on the fringes of the stage worked well for me, as it forces the eye to follow the characters as they separate or interact.  Entrances and exits are blurred, so we end up unsure as to the proportions of the room(s) we are viewing.  A video entry phone is the only concession to technology.

Marber’s adaptation may bring more laughs to the fore than the piece requires, but there is no denying the cumulative power of script, direction, and performance.  Wilson, Soller, Spall and Matthews are all excellent, with only Chukwudi Iwuji’s Lovborg missing that final note of mental disintegration that his fate would seemingly require.   Hedda’s final act may shock some, “People do not do such things”, but at least the events of this production are delivered in such a way that she clearly does not have a choice if she is not to spend her days in a living hell.

Image credit: Jan Versweyveld.


The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre)

This new translation of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill has been polarising audiences at the National Theatre, but it is a vibrant and lively production, entertaining and bawdy, and – some diction issues aside – a well-sung musical black comedy.  I’m pleased to report that Weill’s music has definitely stood the test of time.

Rory Kinnear (showing versatility with fairly successful vocal work) is Captain Macheath aka Mack the Knife, who carries round a large blade and dispatches people who cause him trouble.  He marries Polly Peachum (Rosalie Craig, last seen in the dreadful wonder.land, much better here) for her brains and to get one over on her gangster dad and her horny mum. But is his chequered past about to catch up with him?

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This production, by Rufus Norris, uses a translation by Simon Stephens which focuses on a run of profanity and the ‘filthy language’ promised in the National’s publicity, alongside the ‘immoral behaviour’ which includes Mackie and Polly making their first appearance in coitus which being lowered down from the flies on a crescent moon.

Brechtian theatre shows all the nuts and bolts of the stage, and this production doesn’t disappoint, with lights, ropes, and a busy set of steps, paper doors, and liberal use of the National’s drum revolve, all contributing to the overall effect.

There are some aspects of this musical that are muddled: Haydn Gwynne’s Mrs Peachum using a fire extinguisher to mimic vomiting after a heavy night, all of Sharon Small’s songs as heavily Scots-accented Jenny, some of the lyric changes, the gay angle, and Peachum’s wig, but they are generally overshadowed by successful innovations, including Paule Constable’s lighting design.

Debbie Kurup does well as a feisty and aggressive Lucy Brown, and George Ikediashi is a camp balladeer, but Peter de Jersey disappoints in the duet with Kinnear (‘A Soldier’s Return’) and I struggled with one of Mackie’s gang being severely disabled and almost played for laughs.

Edit: I would like to expand on my final sentence following a comment I have received on Twitter, specifically honing in on the fact I had a problem following the speech of the member of the cast with cerebral palsy (his name is Jamie Beddard, and he plays the member of Mackie’s gang called ‘The Shadow’).

The Telegraph’s review claims that this casting was inspired and makes the audience implicit in Macheath’s eventual frustration and mockery, but for me this didn’t work.  I was frustrated enough with not being able to follow the lyrics at times without having to decipher a speech impairment as well; nonetheless, Beddard did well and was particularly amusing in the black scene where Polly, the new bride, seems in danger of a nasty assault from the gang.

I am afraid, though, that I felt this particular piece of casting was a stunt which did not work in the context of the whole musical, and it weakened the fabric of a show which was already not entirely successful, by overbalancing scenes and musical numbers with an additional burden on an audience who were already dealing with an assault on the senses from the revised lyrics and situations, and could do nothing but react with uncomfortable laughter.  I hope this makes my comment clearer.

 


Young Chekhov: Platonov (National Theatre)

David Hare’s adaptations of Chekhov’s early plays is presented at the National Theatre as single plays as well as a day-long trilogy, but having seen both ‘Ivanov’ and ‘The Seagull’ before, I chose to go on Saturday morning to see ‘Platonov’.

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A difficult play to characterize, Chekhov wrote his first play in 1881 as a large-scale, eight-hour untitled piece, but it was never staged.  This is the play which eventually became came known as ‘Platonov” (as well as being adapted under titles as different as ‘Wild Honey’, ‘Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano’, ‘Firework on the James’, ‘Don Juan’ and ‘A Country Scandal’).  It was adapted for television under the present title, starring Rex Harrison, in 1971.

We meet the group who are the main characters in this drama in the garden of Anna Petrovna (Nina Sosanya), including doctor Nikolai and his wife Maria, his sister Sasha and her husband Platonov (interestingly only he is referred to by his last name from all the younger members of the group).  Anna’s stepson Sergei is bringing back his young bride, Sofya, but she and Platonov share a past.   In the meantime rich landowner Porfiri loves Anna and seeks her hand, but his feckless son Kiril has other ideas.

This play has moments of laugh out loud comedy, melodrama, financial skullduggery, adultery, and eventual tragedy, but the whole is an uneasy mix.  In the title role, James McArdle, in broad Scots accent, gives the role of a heel, a drunk and a rotter some humanity, although I found Olivia Vinall’s Sofya a little on the hysterical side.

As Anna, Nina Sosanya is graceful yet playful, and the rich man who wishes to call in his loans, Pavel, is played with gleeful malice by David Verrey.  Joshua James’ sniffy and sarcastic Nikolai is fun, while Jade Williams’ Sasha has the right mix of naive wife and distraught mother, and Nicholas Day’s red-faced Colonel is nicely comical.

Even though the programme states these plays are ‘new versions by David Hare, this particular adaptation of ‘Platonov’ was first staged in the West End in 2001.  This set of plays are directed by Jonathan Kent for the Chichester Festival, and running at the National Theatre into early October 2016.

 

 


Evening at the Talk House (National Theatre)

This is a world premiere of a new play by Wallace Shawn, who also stars in this 100 minute piece running at the Dorfman Theatre until April.

The set is that of a club called the Talk House, where the assorted characters in the play used to meet regularly ten years ago, when they were cast and crew members in a successful theatre production called ‘Midnight In a Clearing With Moon and Stars’.

In Bob’s lengthy opening monologue (which sets the tone for what is to follow, ponderous, over-explanatory and rather dull), we hear about how the reunion came to pass, and see each character being introduced – Nellie, Jane, Ted, Annette, Tom, Bill, and Dick, the gate crasher played by Shawn, the actor who has clearly fallen on hard times.

Soon it becomes apparent that this is not the world as we know it.  Theatre ‘no longer exists’ by state decree.  A ‘Programme of Murdering’ removes undesirables both abroad and closer to home.  Ordinary looking and sounding people talk of targeting and assassinating as if it is just a normal bodily function.  There is an air of menace hanging over proceedings …

… the trouble is, nothing happens other than 100 minutes of talk, which includes descriptions of murders of people we know nothing about, and constant ‘did you hear what happened to Y’ and ‘do you remember X’ just alienates an audience who simply does not care about the characters in front of them, let alone a parade of people off the set who simply do not matter.

I liked the way the set (by the Quay Brothers) and lighting design at least tried to conspire together to convey a sense of movement and transition in this play, but the writing stops it flat, despite the basic premise being quite an intriguing, if naïve, idea.  The contrast between the forced bonhomie of colleagues who probably never liked each other anyway with the beatings and killings in which they are regularly involved feels forced.

In the cast, apart from Shawn as the failed and battered actor, we have Anna Calder-Marshall as the kindly Nellie, the Talk House’s proprietress, .Josh Hamilton as sniffy Bob, Sinead Matthews as Jane the waitress turned assassin who longs for death, Joseph Mydell as the idealistic Bill, Naomi Wirthner as costume designer Annette who was everyone’s confidante and who now has a heart of ice, Stuart Milligan as Ted the on the surface nice guy, and Simon Shepherd as successful yet vacuous TV personality Tom.

Shawn is feted as one of America’s foremost dramatists, but even those with that status sometimes need to be reined in.  Alhough Ian Rickson does his best with direction, this play goes nowhere and does so at a funereal pace.  By the ending, which doesn’t really make much sense, we have stopped caring, which might explain the audience grumbling when the lights go down and the silence before the grudging applause.


wonder.land (National Theatre)

There’s something in the water on the Southbank.  It’s been 150 years since Charles Dodgson took up the name of Lewis Carroll and wrote ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’, vibrant, inventive and frankly mad novels which have puzzled and charmed children ever since.

Damon Albarn (formerly of Blur) has written the music for this new musical set squarely in the dot.com generation.  Lyrics, such as they are, for the songs are written by Moira Buffini, and direction is from Rufus Norris, the new incumbent as Artistic Director at the National Theatre.

A good pedigree, you might say, and with such a book as a springboard, could it really miss?  The trouble is, I don’t think it is mad enough – our heroine, Aly (Lois Chimimba) is a moody, mixed-race teenager with separated parents (her father is sort of the Mad Hatter as he has mental problems and, well, wears hats) and a baby brother who vomits over the stage.

Said baby brother is called Charlie which leads to a laboured act two song called, yes, ‘Everyone Loves Charlie’.  It’s about as far away from Jefferson Airplane’s druggily Alice inspired anthem ‘White Rabbit’ as you can get.

The other songs channel the Laughing Policeman, Chim Chim Cheree, and Knees Up Mother Brown, and where we have a bit of melody, such as avatar Alice singing about herself or the trippy and glittery green caterpillar asking ‘Who Are You’ in true Disney style, we are pulled up short and feel as if we have wandered into another show.

What plot there is centres on Aly entering the world of http://www.wonder.land, coaxed by the Cheshire Cat (Hal Fowler, who also plays the Caterpillar) in stunning digital graphics, of which I would have loved to have seen more.

She creates a Tenniel-perfect Alice as her alter ego (Carly Bawden) who starts off all fluffy and cute and then becomes an evil troll when turned into the Red Queen by the nasty and vicious headmistress Ms Manxome (see what they did there?  Manx.  Cat.  Ho.), played by Anna Francolini.  She’s fun, but too one-dimensional, and really, is someone evil because they want to stop a child playing on their phone during lessons?

In lip service to Carroll’s original, Dinah, Mary-Ann and Kitty are here transformed into bullies who torment Aly in the girls’ loos, while the Mock Turtle, Humpty, Dum and Dee and others are avatars her Alice encounters online.  They could be any characters, really, and the creators don’t seem to know what to do with them.

With special effects which seem set to disappoint – an early screen full of messages goes nowhere, and other opportunities are missed – poor songs, and a plot which tries to shoehorn in everything possible (including a gay guy and a zombie apocalypse), this show tries to dazzle but instead irritates.

It doesn’t fall into the ‘so bad it’s good’ camp.  It has no hummable tunes (but that’s sometimes OK, if the show is good enough).  It has some good costumes, and that Cheshire Cat animation is excellent, but it isn’t enough to save this from being a true Christmas turkey, despite the best efforts of its cast.

All glitter on the outside with nothing inside, I’m afraid.


Jane Eyre (National Theatre)

First presented in two parts in Bristol, this version now playing at the National Theatre has been reduced to a more manageable three and a quarter hours (including interval) in which to tell the story of Jane Eyre from birth to happy ending.  Topping and tailing the main story with the words ‘It’s a girl!’ makes this a strictly feminist reading of the novel on the surface, although the focus remains on the love story between the plain and insignificant Jane and her employer, the troubled Mr Rochester.

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Playing Jane from childhood onwards, Madeleine Worrall is absolutely excellent, a wild haired dervish of a troubled girl whether crying out ‘unjust’ to her life, running on the spot to represent the journeys between Mrs Reed’s home and Lowood Institution, Lowood and Thornfield Hall, and climbing ladders within the set of wood and metal to show passages of place and time.  Rochester (Felix Hayes) does not overdo the bluster or sharpness of his role, instead finding a connection with his new governess and an opportunity to escape his desperate situation.

Craig Edwards has three roles – Mr Brocklehurst, Rochester’s dog Pilot, and Mason (brother to the shadowy Bertha Mason, who appears now and then in the person of Melanie Marshall’s singer who interjects ‘Mad About The Boy’ and ‘Crazy’ – the Gnarls Barkley one, not the Patsy Cline one – into proceedings), and he works hard, especially in the comic role of the faithful pet.

Other performers who deserve to be mentioned are Laura Elphinstone (Helen Burns, Adele, and a particularly sanctimonious St John Rivers), and Maggie Tierney (Mrs Reed and Mrs Fairfax), but the whole ensemble come together in a beautifully choreographed set of scenes, perfectly timed and probably testament to a long period of gestation and rehearsal.

Set pieces, too, work well in places – the cavernous grave which swallows Jane’s parents, her Uncle Reed, and Helen in quick succession as they leave her life, her Aunt Reed’s promise to bring up her baby niece as one of the family and then shaking the baby bundle with distain into the plain dress in which the young Jane is garbed, little more than a servant.

I do feel, however, that Sally Cookson’s production assumes a prior knowledge of the story that many audiences might not have, and that there are some bad decisions, including the aforementioned Bertha, who is too smooth and measured to represent a mad woman who burns, stabs and bites.  The one thing that made me cringe was Rochester’s descent from his horse in a flurry of f- words, which was unnecessary: this man is no gentleman and not worthy of Jane.  The book’s Rochester may have a certain brusqueness of tone but he would be unlikely to swear in the company of a woman; even that other Gothic hero, Heathcliff, never did that.

A Jane which perhaps fails to fully gel, could do with being cropped by around half an hour, but which nevertheless remains true to its source and its heroine, and ends up being effective and moving despite itself.


Three Days in the Country (National Theatre)

An afternoon at the Lyttleton, National Theatre, where we find Patrick Marber’s new version of the lengthy Turgenev play ‘A Month in the Country’, now around half the length and retitled ‘Three Days in the Country’.

This production, with a minimalist set (painted backdrop of trees etc, and red doors leading nowhere), has the accent on comedy with the best performance coming from Mark Gatiss as the doctor who is a ‘maestro of misdiagnosis’ with a dodgy back.  His proposal to a disinterested Lizaveta (Debra Gillett) is most amusing.

At this performance Amanda Drew, who plays Natayla, was indisposed, so her understudy Cassie Raine stepped in and was very good in what is perhaps the key role of the play, the wife who seeks distraction from a stale marriage to the rich Arkady (John Light) who has stopped seeing her rich qualities as his partner in life.  On the fringes is their longtime friend Rakitin (john Simm), hopelessly in love with Natayla but finding his attentions unrequited.  Simm, to me, was too over the top and lacking a sense of the tragic, which was a shame.

Natayla is in love, though, with the young tutor Belyaev (Royce Pierreson), a man who seems rather fickle as we see him flirting with the maid Katya (Cherrelle Skeete) while leading on the young Vera (Lily Sacofsky), ward to Arkady and Natayla.  Sensing a rival for the youth she craves, Natayla plots Vera’s marriage to an old neighbour, Bolshintsov (Nigel Betts) to remove the girl from her house.

Rounding out this rich cast are Lynn Farleigh and Gawn Grainger, and the whole ensemble works well together, presenting an entertaining two hours which punctuates laughs with moments of emotional pathos and Russian songs.  Marber directs as well as writes with a sure hand, and the design work of Mark Thompson and Neil Austin is well worth a mention.


3 Winters (National Theatre), John Cleese – So Anyway (Cadogan Hall)

Last weekend was a double theatre visit, first to the new Croatian-set play ‘3 Winters’, which I admit I left at the interval, so perhaps cannot give a balanced review.  Suffice to say I thought the sets were excellent, moving between the three eras (1945, 1990, 2011) in the same house, although I would personally have dated the video projections.  The characterizations were spread too thinly for us to really care about them, although the actors did their best.  Just not my thing.

John Cleese has had a busy couple of years with his Alimony Tour, the Python reunion at the O2, and now the tour in support of his autobiography (up to 1969) called ‘So Anyway’.  The small and intimate Cadogan Hall was the perfect venue for his conversation with David Walliams, in which he came across as funny, personable, and surprisingly not as arrogant as he has sometimes come across in interviews.  OK, we have heard some of the anecdotes before (Graham Chapman going to a debate at the Oxford Union dressed as a carrot), but they remain amusing enough.  I now look forward to reading the book, which we got as part of the ticket price.  One side note on the Cadogan Hall show, in Cleese’s book he notes his good friend the actor Nicky Henson has a funny laugh which he likes to provoke, and as Mr Henson was in the row in front of us I can confirm that yes, he does indeed have a distinct barking cackle which appeared throughout the show.


Here Lies Love (National Theatre) review

Fresh from New York, this musical collaboration between David Byrne of Talking Heads and DJ Fatboy Slim is all about Imelda Marcos, and here the parallels between this show and ‘Evita’, the Lloyd Webber-Rice show about Eva Peron may begin to show.

The nugget which gave birth to this disco spectacular was the news that Mrs Marcos had her own glitterball and dance floor in her Manila mansion, and this gave Byrne the idea to build a libretto which uses bits of speeches, letters and found footage to build lyrics which tell a story.  The selling point which is new and different is the inclusion of the audience members in the ‘pit’ (here the stalls of the new Dorfman Theatre, formerly known as the Cottesloe, with seats removed and moving platforms added) who line dance, jump around, and interact with the actors at key moments.

Imelda Marcos was born in 1929 and was dirt poor until hooking the big fish, president-to-be Ferdinand (1917-1989).  Before that romance (which gives rise to the bouncy song ‘Eleven Days’, referring to their odd courtship where they met once, she was showered with trinkets for a week and a bit, and then she married the guy) she was in love with Ninoy Aquino (1932-1983), who jilted her because she was ‘too tall’ and later reappears at various points in the musical to castigate her behaviour much in the way Che did with Evita.

You don’t need to understand too much about Filipino history to enjoy this musical, although at certain times a memory of real events was stirred, especially towards the end where the Marcos are forced to flee during the People’s Peaceful Revolution, which led to Cory Aquino (1933-2009), widow of Ninoy, assuming the presidency.   The songs will help you along throughout their history, and that of Imelda’s childhood friend and nanny, Estrella.

Politics occasionally rears its head, as masked figures evoke world leaders like Reagan who were personal friends of Marcos – other key moments are shown in video projections, some of the actors re-imagining real events, some of Imelda Marcos herself.  There is pulsating music, disco lights (largely pink), and a lot of energy.  The songs themselves, though, are a bit underpowered at times, the opener being sickly sweet, the title song sounding a little bit like the Neil Diamond classic ‘Sweet Caroline’, and others which show promise – ‘The Rose of Tacloban’, ‘When She Passed By’, ‘Order 1081’ – in danger of getting lost in the sea of dancing bodies.  ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’ simply evoked memories of the Spamalot spoof ‘A Song Like This’.

Still, there is much to enjoy here, and the leading actors – former Saigon Kim, Natalie Mendoza as Imelda, Gia Macuja Atchison as Estrella, Dean-John Wilson as Aquino, Mark Bautista as Marcos – are on good form.  I wasn’t sure about the use of real transcripts of calls to move the plot along, but the sound mix is fine, the lyrics are audible, and from centre circle, where we were, we got an excellent view of the action and the inspired choreography.


Review: Ballyturk (National Theatre)

There has been decidedly mixed press about this new play by Enda Walsh, which has come to England following runs in Dublin and Cork.   Hard to catagorise in any particular box, this can be classed as anything from black comedy to theatre of the absurd, to a frenetic physical showcase capped by a philosophical close, to ‘filling a room with words’.

A cast of three bring this play to the stage, under Walsh’s direction, and clearly every scene is closely choreographed, whether to the pulsing beats of ABC’s ‘The Look of Love’ or the smooth dialogue of the game of ‘Ballyturk’, where two men only called ‘1’ and ‘2’ create a day in the life of a town which only appears to exist in their head, from the local bully boy to the snipey lady shopkeeper (“I’ll not be out-bittered by a lemon”).  Despite the Daily Mail asserting these two are brothers, there is no evidence to say whether they are brothers, strangers, father and son, or lovers.  The conjecture is purely that of an audience who can make what they like of this set up.

Cillian Murphy plays ‘1’, and those who have seen him in both ‘Peaky Blinders’ on television, and in the films he has been part of (androgynously beautiful in ‘Breakfast at Pluto’, strangely vulnerable in ‘Disco Pigs’ – also directed by Walsh, tough in ‘Perrier’s Bounty’) know they show his range, which is built on here.  He’s a livewire of activity, whether bounding up on to the curiously placed wooden furniture, working himself up into epileptic fits, or simply getting on with the minutae of life with a force which leaves him drenched in sweat for most of the production.  He’s wickedly funny, too, and towards the end, quite heartbreaking, when he gets a chance to break from the repetitive existence he has shared with ‘2’ (dancing and drawing).

Mikel Murfi plays ‘2’.  He’s not an actor I was familiar with, but on looking him up he was born as Michael Murphy, and rebranded himself early on, having made many stage appearances, a lot of collaboration with Walsh, and the occasional film (‘The Commitments’, ‘The Butcher Boy’).  He is also a physical dynamo, and with quirky looks contained in an elastic face, he can switch from one emotion to another in a second, well showcased as he changes from one ‘Ballyturk’ character to another in a moment.

Into this bizarre existence, where the occasional disembodied voice comes through the walls, and ‘1’ and ‘2’ are – what – trapped? imprisoned? cocooned? – comes a louche visitor, known only as ‘3’, with cigarette in hand and, in a long existential monologue, a taste of what is available outdoors, from the disappointment of life to the things we all take for granted (sun, clouds, trees).

He is a challenge to the other two, and whether demanding tea and biscuits (which leads to an amusing biscuit jenga game, done in such a laid-back way it is almost imperceptible), singing an old classic, ‘Time After Time’ (with a microphone that appears from up high, for no reason) or quietly staring out ‘1’, he is a dynamic force coming into the partnership we have witnessed so far.

‘3’ is played by Stephen Rea, and his character is so quiet and nonchalant he exudes real danger and an unsettling vibe to the piece.  I hadn’t seen him on stage before but have been long familiar with his film work, and he hasn’t lost any of that power he’s brought to the screen in the past.

The ending, to me, was one open to interpretation, of what is beyond the wall which had parted to allow ‘3’ to join the party.  If ‘1’ and ‘2’ had always been able to leave, why hadn’t they?  If they were always destined to be trapped, why was the opportunity presented now, and what would it lead to?  Was the ‘death’ that ‘3’ spoke of really a reintroduction back into the real life, and the inevitable mortality that involved?  And just who was ‘3’, anyway?

As we left the National another audience member had clearly endured enough during the 90 minutes, dismissing this play as “a load of bloody rubbish!”.  The audience reaction generally was mixed, I thought, some enthuastically applauding, others muted and quiet.  I found ‘Ballyturk’ interesting, infuriating, funny, charming, and touching,  I might be biased as a fan of both Rea and Murphy, but they don’t disappoint, and this play is a challenge for sure, but a worthwhile one.


Medea (National Theatre) review

The National Theatre has never staged a production of ‘Medea’ before, and this version with minimalist set and modern dress is a short and snappy ninety minutes – quite a relief after my recent run of 3+ hour shows.

Euripides wrote the original play in 431 BC, and this new production is presented in a version by Ben Power, and directed by Carrie Cracknell.  It focuses on the tragic force of fate which drives the central character (played by Helen McCrory) to commit the ultimate sin of filicide, murdering her two small sons to gain revenge of their father, Jason, who has abandoned her to take a new wife, the daughter of the King. 

Although some of the cast may be a little underpowered, especially Michaela Coel as the Nurse (I doubt her voice can reach the top tier of the Olivier), McCrory is on rip-roaring form as she plans her revenge while being so duplicitous in oozing charm to her ex-husband, prostrating herself before the King who plans to send her into exile, or playing the loving mother to her TV-watching, gadget-playing boys.

The chorus, led by Midsomer Murders actress Jane Wymark, build up the tension with their ticks and twitches leading into wild dancing, while of the three main male roles, Martin Turner is an imperious Kreon, Danny Sapani a curiously detached Jason, and Dominic Rowan an underused Aegeus. 

Although the wedding sequences, seen through glass walls in the top of the set, are well-done, it is the closing moments you will remember – the off-screen screams of the boys as their mother approaches with a knife, Jason’s sense of loss as he realises his sons have been snapped away, and Medea’s final and literal shouldering of blame, heartbreaking as she eventually only achieves in destroying herself and all she holds dear.  It’s in this sequence where McCrory reaches the pinnacle of this performance – I saw this play in 1992 with Diana Rigg and didn’t think it could be topped, but this final scene touched and appalled me in a way few performances have.

We have two emotional powerhouses going on in London at the moment, with McCrory’s Medea and Richard Armitage’s John Proctor in The Crucible.  I highly recommend you try and see both.


The Silver Tassie (National Theatre) review

When I was at school, we spent some time assessing the works of Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey, specifically his trilogy of classic works (Juno and the Paycock, Shadow of a Gunman, The Plough and the Stars).  This play, The Silver Tassie, did not get an Abbey Theatre premiere and was dismissed at the time of writing as a confused mess of stories and scenes, comparing unfavourably with Journey’s End, also set in the Great War.

This National Theatre revival still has a feeling of confusion and doesn’t quite hit the right note of O’Casey’s voice and poetry, but it has moments of greatness, particularly in act two, where a soldier sings of the desolation of war, and in the final moments, where a dance becomes a grotesque and moving comment on the devastation conflict has brought on a small community, not just the town bully who, blinded, becomes the piece’s philosopher, or the football hero who, bitter and paralysed from the waist down, has to reassess his life.

With ear-splitting explosions and an amazing transition of scenes between act one (set in a typical alehouse with comedy schtick characters) and act two, the field of battle, this play remains relevant and connects with its audience, although it can feel a little slow in places and the framing characters of Sylvester and Simon feel a little like pale cousins of the Paycock and his friend from ‘Juno’.

 


A Small Family Business (National Theatre) review

This revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 play no longer has the bite it had on first run, but it still a powerful blend of farcical humour and dark family politics.  In Nigel Lindsay’s moral compass Jack McCracken we have a businessman who starts with strong words and then sees his values slowly eroded as the dealings of his family and their associates the Rivetti brothers begin to unravel.

True, these days it might not be startling to see a sulky teenager become embroiled in the power of drugs, or a bored wife spending her free time in leather corset and boots, but take this with the 1980s spirit and it is still an enjoyable romp through a truly terrible family which, in this new staging from director Adam Penford, reaches a conclusion which is still hard-hitting.

The Olivier’s revolve is well-served by the set which has the front of a suburban house slowly turning to reveal a network of rooms which represent scene changes and location changes; the same house for all, hallway, bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, living room.  The characters may have a hint of the stereotype about them but they are well-written within the confines of the plot and along with Lindsay, there are good turns from Debra Gillett as Jack’s wife, Niky Wardley as the fetishistic sister-in-law, Neal Barry as Desmond who lives for his sub-par culinary experiments, and Matthew Cottle as the oily blackmailer.

It isn’t as obviously funny as Ayckbourn’s better known titles (like Absent Friends or Season’s Greetings), but it is fast-paced, well-performed and is worth a look, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of a perfect-ten production.


King Lear (National Theatre) review

This much-anticipated production by Sam Mendes of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic play stars the actor Simon Russell Beale, who at fifty-three may be on the younger side of Lears, but who is undoubtedly one of our most gifted classical actors.

Mendes and Russell Beale have worked together on numerous occasions before (notably in ‘Othello’ (SRB as Iago) and The Tempest (a startling Ariel opposite an imposing Alec McCowan’s Prospero) so there must almost be a shorthand of technique between them as they created this excellent version of what becomes in their hands the story of a military dictator who is pitched into dementia by the harsh treatment of his two eldest daughters (Goneril, played here by Kate Fleetwood; Regan, played by Anna Maxwell Martin), and the slow burn of guilt following the banishment of his youngest ‘jewel’ Cordelia (Olivia Vinall).

Now and again the production may stray into a flashy cinematic flourish (the rising ramp Lear and his Fool walk on, the out of character rage from Lear leading directly to the demise of the gentle Fool (Adrian Scarborough, very good indeed)) but its strength is in the performances, notably that of Russell Beale, from his strutting yet tiring despot of Act One through to his hopeless flower carrying fractured spirit of the scenes immediately following the interval.

As Gloucester, Stephen Boxer is very touching in the scenes where he is reconciled with his wronged son Edgar (Tom Brooke), albeit without knowing it.  Brooke himself makes an excellent Edgar, taking the references to the ‘naked fellow’ literally in his first appearance as ‘Poor Mad Tom’, but keeping the dignity of the exiled gentleman.  Rounding out the cast of principals is Sam Troughton as an Edmund who has expressive eyes and a knowing smirk, especially once he has the attention of both the wicked sisters.

This is not a perfect Lear, nor the best I have seen, although Russell Beale does not disappoint (unlike some reviewers I do not see his small stature as a problem, and his interchange with Cordelia when they are reconciled is deeply moving, as it should be, but often is not) and the modern setting makes us think of overthrown dictators and aged rulers.  Unlike the Almeida production of two years ago this production does not imply incest between Lear and his children, although the sisters remain highly sexed and this remains their eventual undoing, two harpies destroyed by jealousy.

All in all, a triumph, with Stanley Townsend’s bruiser of a Kent also worth a mention.  This is a Lear which does not pull its punches, and sometimes it veers into violence which seems to jar with everything that has gone before – but yet, a despot who has towering statues of himself across the city may, if his eyes are pecked at long enough, might simply cease being able to see clearly and take responsibility for his own actions?  Only the return of his beloved youngest child can bring Lear back to a semblance of sanity, but too late.


A quick London round-up …

At London’s Transport Museum, Covent Garden, you can see the exhibition of posters brought together under the umbrella title ‘Poster Art 150’.  It’s on until January 5th – more details at http://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/exhibitions.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, has acquired Vivien Leigh’s archive and will display a selection of items from it in their Theatre & Performance galleries.  More details here – http://www.vam.ac.uk/b/blog/network/va-acquires-vivien-leigh-archive.

In its last week at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank is the World Press Photo Exhibition – http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/world-press-photo-2013-1000455.

The Royal Festival Hall’s Spirit Level gallery is also the venue for the Koestler Trust’s 2013 exhibition of art by prisoners, offenders on community sentences, secure psychiatric patients and immigration detainees.  As in previous years this is touching, surprising, and well worth a look.  It runs until the 1st December.  http://www.koestlertrust.org.uk/pages/uk2013/exhibuk2013.html

Staying on the South Bank, the National Theatre is celebrating its 50th birthday and has a small exhibition of images in the Lyttelton Gallery of Oliver’s first company amongst other celebrations – http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/discover-more/welcome-to-the-national-theatre/50th-anniversary/50-at-the-national.

At the BFI Southbank, we are halfway through the Gothic season of films (https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=gothic), and there is currently a Vivien Leigh retrospective which runs to the end of the year *https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=vivien-leigh), including a new restoration of ‘Gone With The Wind’.

From tiny musical boxes to the Mighty Wurlitzer, pay a visit to the Musical Museum in Brentford (http://10551.easywebsiteinabox.org/contents/14), while at the Watermans just up the road the annual showcase of digital art, enter13, is running until 5th January (http://www.watermans.org.uk/exhibitions/exhibitions/enter13.aspx).

At Pimlico, the Tate Britain has had a revamp and has an exhibition on until February of ‘Five Contemporary Artists’.  For more details, see http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/painting-now-five-contemporary-artists.

The Design Museum (at Butler’s Wharf) recreates Paul Smith’s chaotic office with its collection of miscellaneous objects until the 9th March – http://designmuseum.org/exhibitions/2013/paul-smith.

Finally, over at the Barbican in the City of London, the Pop Art Movement is being celebrated at the Gallery – http://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery/event-detail.asp?ID=14797.

NaBloPoMo November 2013


National Theatre at 50: a celebration

Fresh from watching BBC2’s broadcast of the largest gathering of National Theatre luminaries ever to appear on one stage, I wanted to put my thoughts down before forgetting the great and the good.

To do justice to a half century of productions in a couple of hours (two and a half, as it happens) is a tall order, but I think current artistic director Nicholas Hytner got his choices spot on. Mixing archive footage (a radiant Maggie Smith in ‘Hay Fever’, Paul Scofield’s definitive ‘obscene child’ speech from ‘Amadeus’, the powerful Southern tension between Maggie (Lindsay Duncan) and Brick (Ian Charleson) in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, Ian McKellen’s reptilian ‘Richard III’) with live snippets from plays (Helen Mirren and Tim Pigott-Smith simmering with hate in ‘Mourning Becomes Electra’, a fragile Cleopatra (Judi Dench) playing tribute to her Antony, Ralph Fiennes an electrifying media mogul in ‘Pravda’, Andrew Scott and Dominic Cooper facing mortality in ‘Angels in America’, Simon Russell Beale soliloquizing (but not To Be or Not To Be) as ‘Hamlet’, the hilarious French lesson from ‘The History Boys’) and musicals (Clive Rowe’s Nicely Nicely rocking the boat in ‘Guys and Dolls’, the Rain in Spain from ‘My Fair Lady’, a bouncy snippet from ‘Jerry Springer the Opera’), this show has something for everyone.

I enjoyed seeing a moving excerpt from ‘War Horse’, a section from ‘The National Health’ (with original cast member Charles Kay), a lovely two-hander from National originals Michael Gambon and Derek Jacobi in Pinter’s ‘No Man’s Land’, a mischievous sequence from ‘Bedroom Farce’ with Nicholas Le Provost and Penelope Wilton, a montage of NT Live productions including the Miller/Cumberbatch ‘Frankenstein’, and Zoe Wanamaker in ‘The Cherry Orchard’, a section from ‘Othello’ where Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear freeze framed for a sound archive snippet from the 1965 Othello and Iago (Laurence Olivier and Frank Finlay).

Perhaps most touching of all was Joan Plowright (Lady Olivier) returning to the Old Vic stage to perform ‘Joan of Arc’ fifty years after she first appeared in the role.

Going back to those archive clips, I wish the National Theatre would open up its archive more for viewing, not necessarily for commercial reasons and DVD release, but in a manner similar to the BFI’s Mediatheque. Judging by the selection shown at this celebration there is some fabulous material hidden away, especially of performers who are no longer with us, or who no longer perform on the stage (a good example here would be Anthony Hopkins, who was referred to several times but who clearly did not feel able to participate here, if he was even approached!).

Many original company members were present and correct at this celebration, by the way: Derek Jacobi, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Joan Plowright. The sense of something special having been created started from the silent appearance of Derek Jacobi as Old Hamlet’s Ghost, and carried on right to Frances de la Tour’s ‘persistent plays’ from ‘The Habit of Art’ which closed the evening.

The programme for the day can be downloaded at:

http://t.co/dsV1EbX0cj

NaBloPoMo November 2013


National Theatre: Liolà review

Over at the National Theatre, a production of Luigi Pirandello’s Liolà is running, adapted by Tanya Ronder and directed by Richard Eyre, with an all-Irish cast.

At first the juxtaposition of Irish accents with an obviously Italian setting jars a little, but as becomes clear, this is the story of any displaced community fending for itself, and the decision by the director to cast it in the way he did just about works.  Liolà himself is a playboy on the surface – he has three young sons by three different women, has no thoughts of marriage, and has no qualms about picking the best fruit from the vine.  He’s beautifully played with surety by Rory Keenan – you shouldn’t like this character because of his fecklessness and devil-may-care attitude, but as the play enfolds we see a loving father and a good friend, who has the ultimate solution to old Uncle Simone’s problem of not being able to father a child with his beautiful young wife, Mita.

Liolà has been described as a pastoral comedy, and in its laconic view of life and use of music to illuminate the story, it does have wit and intelligence.  But there’s more going on under the surface than immediately appears.  Liolà’s mother, Ninfa (Charlotte Bradley) knows her son better than anyone and will defend him to the hilt, but knows inside that his unorthodox ways have brought shame on their family.  Simone (James Hayes) is sixty-five and has had a previous barren wife, yet he violently abuses and blames Mita (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) for his lack of fortune.

On the periphery of this cauldron of family emotions are those who watch (Rosaleen Linahan’s Gesa, aunt to Mita; and cynical old-maid Càrmina, played by Eileen Walsh) and those who scheme (the Azzara mother and daughter, Croce (Aisling O’Sullivan) and Tuzza (Jessica Regan)).  Whether peeling potatoes, crushing nuts, or singing to while away the hours, these women rule the roost and dominate the play.

Anthony Ward has designed an impressive set which in a mass of concrete, wood, and one large tree, gives a flavour of 19th century Sicily, as does Rich Walsh’s sound design of chirping cicadas and off-stage chatter.  Liolà is a play which takes a little time to get going, but when it does, it is a tale worth watching.

NaBloPoMo November 2013


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is there room for me to sew?

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Cinema - moving around life one film at a time.

The Case for Jeanette and Nelson

"Whaddya gonna do? I love her. I think she loves me." -Nelson Eddy on the Jack Parr Show, 1960

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This blog is all about cinema, movies and stars of every decades. It's wonderful!

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Featuring Gryff, the angry diabetic cat, and the humans who serve him

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