Yellowman at the Young Vic review ****



Young Vic Theatre, 29th November 2017

From what I can see American playwrights don’t like to arse about too much with the play, either in terms of dramatic form or the subject, the family history in one form or another. Why not, given the history of American gifts to the theatrical world, and if that’s what the punters want. From this apparent straightjacket have emerged some cracking plays, from the C20 masters as well as in recent years. It would seem that a recommendation from the journos and academics which make up the Pulitzer judging panel is as good as recommendation as any as to what to see. And that basically is all I had to go on prior to booking Yellowman.

Dael Orlandersmith’s two hander was a Pulitzer finalist from 2002 which tells the story of Eugene and Alma, from childhood into adulthood, from rural South Carolina to New York and back again, through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Most importantly, as the Yellowman of the title, Eugene is tall and light skinned, like his grandfather and mother Thelma, though not his father Robert, whilst Alma is large and dark skinned like her mother Ophelia. The actors play all the male and female characters (including Alton and Wyce, Eugene’s friends), with rapid, though sharply delineated, shifts between these characters.

The relationship between Eugene and Alma moves from simple childhood friendship, through mutual dependence, to teenage love then sex, engagement and pregnancy. This, on its own, would be enough to enjoy given the quality of the writing, but over the 100 minutes or so we get an incisive dissection of “blackness”, beauty, gender, domestic violence, generational division and abuse, inheritance, poverty and class. Very, very occasionally. Ms Orlandersmith’s writing lapses into saccharine cliche, but more often that not, this serves a colouristic purpose and can be forgiven. The deliberate repetition reinforces the deep-rooted identity conflicts that lie at the heart of the play and ensures the six characters as well as the two principals truly come to life.

About from a mottled, mirror floor and some subtle but effective lighting from Nao Nagai, the Clare studio space in the Young Vic had nothing else to work with for the two actors, bar script and audience. So they needed to be good, very good. They were. Christopher Colquhoun, (a long way from Weatherfield), brought an awkwardness and innocence to Eugene which heightened the tensions in key scenes with Alma, his father, Wyce and, latterly, grandfather. Nicola Hughes, if anything, was even more striking, turning Alma into a woman of power and dignity who rises above the self-hate others would have her internalise, and eliciting pity for Ophelia. One of the fiercest performances I have seen this year. I would dearly love to see her in more “straight” drama roles beyond the musicals she is renowned for.

It is easy to see why Yellowman has been so frequently revived since its premiere and why the talented young director Nancy Medina would choose to take it on. Its setting may be specific in terms, of time, place and community, but its insights are universal and the humanity of its love story is palpable. Yet this, if I am honest can be found elsewhere on screen, stage or page. What makes this really, really special for me is Ms Orlandersmith’s gift for dialogue and image. The five sections of the play are distinct by chronology, but is the skill with which the author paints in the detail that made going to see this one of the best decisions I have made this year. And all for £15.

Murder on the Orient Express film review ****


Murder on the Orient Express, 27th November 2017

Stage or film, acting, managing, directing or producing, Sir Kenneth Branagh always makes sure he is right at the centre of things. Always has done. I bet he even pops out to Starbucks when it is his turn to get the lattes in. He probably even organises the on-set Secret Santa. And why not. He is bloody good at what he does and he can get things done. I confess not everything he does is entertainment gold but you can’t argue with his record. In his last eponymous season at the Garrick, (move over Davey boy), in 2015 his Leontes was immense and his physical comedy in The Painkiller belied his 55 years. And you can take your pick of his proselytising Shakespeare leads, stage or screen, (we could do with a real life version his Henry V right now I reckon). The man loves Shakespeare so as far as I am concerned he can do no wrong. The thing is that Sir Ken is an almighty show-off, which, let’s face it, is no bad thing for an actor to be.

So why shouldn’t he have some fun with Agatha C’s arguably most ingenious whodunnit. Yes it has been done to death (tee, hee), and we all know how it ends, but who cares when it is this much fun. With a couple of exceptions, (Johnny Depp, quelle surprise, as pantomime villain, and, to a lesser extent, Michelle Pfeiffer, as a cougarish, femme fatale), the stellar cast he has assembled doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to start chewing the scenery, but it is good to have them along for the ride. And Branagh himself is so mannered as Poirot, complete with risible accent, ludicrous moustache, immaculate suit and, especially at the end, bouts of preposterous philosophising, that it makes up for the under-utilisation elsewhere. Penelope Cruz gets to do buttoned up, doom laden Catholic, (Spanish obviously not the character’s original Swedish though that might have been a fun accent), William Dafoe, a BOGOF routine, with a sinister, racist Austrian before reverting to type, Judi Dench a haughty, mittel-European grunt, Derek Jacobi an Ealing-style, gor-blimey butler and Daisy Ridley an incredulous toff. The talents of, in particular, Manuel Garcia-Rolfo and Olivia Colman get less of an airing, which is a shame, but blame AC for serving up her Last Supper of suspects (a motif that is mined by KB).

Sir Ken takes a similarly selfish approach to his directorial duties coming over all Orson Welles and Wes Anderson, with his mix of angles and shots, and his exquisite set and costume staging for the “action”. He shoves in a prologue in Cairo which I adored. to show just how clever Poirot is, like a vintage OCD Belgian Bond. The camera drones get a good workout and if you like trains, which I do, you are in for a treat. It might distract a bit from the “suspense” but when you know the outcome so what? It is shot on handsome 65mm which adds to the old skool feel. 

It seems once again that Sir Ken’s confidence, which rubs off on everyone around him, has paid off. Despite the muted critical response the box office receipts are rolling in to add to the unsubtle product placement. So we will be getting a Death on the Nile, and I predict, some time ahead of Christmas 2021, an And Then There Were None. Agents of the thespian great and good, get on the phone to Sir Ken now.

Miss Julie at the Jermyn Street Theatre review ***


Miss Julie

Jermyn Street Theatre, 27th November 2017

Grinding my way through the classics of naturalistic drama. Actually not grinding, that makes it sound like too much of a slog, but I can’t pretend it is all unalloyed joy. Turns out that Chekhov is likely the man for me and Ibsen works only intermittently. This was my first Miss Julie, so early days for Sweden’s finest, but based on this, and a past The Father and Creditors, I don’t think I am going to be his greatest fan. I am conscious that the critics across the spectrum lapped this up, and I can’t fault the acting, direction or staging, so any misgivings must lie in the play or possibly the adaption, here newly minted by Howard Brenton. I won’t have the latter though, since a) Howard Brenton is the gold standard in other adaptions, b) he is at pains to tell us in the text that he wanted to stay as close to the original based on the literal translation from Agnes Broome, and c) his play Pravda was the thing that turned me on to the theatre.

Now it strikes me that, for a claustrophobic play set solely in the kitchen of a Swedish manor house, want you want is a claustrophobic theatre and a set which captures said kitchen. Which is precisely what you get from Louie Whitemore. In immense detail. With kidneys frying on the stove. Director Tom Littler, now in the hot-seat at JST, is happy to let Izabella Urbanowicz who plays cook Kristin prepare and cook the meal before James Sheldon’s valet Jean bounds in after having dropped into the Midsummer’s party we can hear going on in the background (courtesy of Max Pappenheim’s sound design). So a confident start. A bit of gentle banter about Miss Julie’s erratic behaviour and some gentle exchanges between the couple and we’re all set for the arrival of the eponymous flirt. I think Izabella Urbanowicz nailed Kristin’s cautious conservatism, (we see it later with references to her faith), and her utilitarian approach to her choice of husband to be. James Sheldon in contrast exuded a kind of boyish restlessness that served him well in the dialogue with each of the women. There was affection between the servant couple, no doubt, but also, I sensed a slight distance.

So all looking good for Charlotte Hamblin’s white-dressed Miss Julie to set the ball rolling towards the sex, anger, imagined disgrace and disappointment which follows. I gather Ms Hamblin is famous for being some-one in Downton Abbey, so this upstairs/downstairs stuff was presumably a breeze for her. I have seen a few bios which include everyone’s favourite period drama, and it has so far proved to be a mark of quality for the stage performance. Which therefore makes it mystifying as to why Downton Abbey itself is so unbelievably bad. Anyway Ms Hamblin was suitably bored, sexy, desperate and rash and Mr Sheldon was suitably horny, angry, boorish and rash to make the attraction very believable. She gets to lash out at the way she is shackled by class and status. So does he. But we are also acutely aware from the off that the distance between is not as great as it seems and, at the societal level, is starting to close. So it’s all there.

My marginal unease comes as we move into the “what are we going to do now” bit. Miss Julie’s collapse into nervous panic and Jean’s swinging mixture of motives are all part of the fun I guess but it tested my patience and I started to drift away from proceedings. Passion can veer from love to hate in an instance, and passion across class barriers is never going to end well for one, or the other or both. AS however seems to want to have his cake and eat it, then whip out another cake and have another go, as the couple ride their emotional rollercoaster. Miss Julie is the victim in this production but that only serves to heighten Strindberg’s not so buried misogyny.

As you can see I am confused and need to think a bit more about this. Must try harder. At the end of the day though I can’t pretend I was gripped throughout and, if this production is as adept as the critics have said, then I may have to conclude that AS is out of my limited reach. Never mind, there’s lots more theatre to explore.