Films you might want to watch

No excuse now not to catch up on documenting what I have seen in recent months given it will be some time before we are out and about. Spare a thought for your favourite theatres. Donate for cancelled performances or take the credit option. I appreciate there are more important things to worry and care about right now but it will be nice if our theatres, and all whose livelihoods depend on them, are still there, intact, for when this is over. Please Governments, start spraying money directly at those you represent. That is the true purpose of political economy. Though I guess providing endless liquidity and underwriting future spreads will continue to be part of the. deal. May as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb to get out of this hole.

Anyway no going out means the Tourist will now have to catch up on home entertainment since reading is still largely beyond his patience and skiving his natural predilection (the SO’s home based to-do lists are expanding rapidly – ironic since we do f*ck all in normal times despite having the luxury of time). There are billions of punters telling you where to direct your armchair efforts box-set wise, so I’ll steer clear, and anyway I can’t normally be arsed to stick with that sort of thing, as scripts are usually stretched to breaking point. No, my motto is, say it in 2 or 3 hours, or, with some glorious exceptions, don’t say it all.

So for me to get the writing hand back in, and for me, and maybe you, to stop staring at the news, here are a couple of film lists. First the best of what I have seen that has come out in the last few years, and may have slipped under your radar, and second, a list of all time contenders based on my viewing over the same period. So not exactly the all time list. Just the best, (or maybe more correctly most memorable since it is the lasting impression that matters), I have seen since the shackles of paid employment were largely loosened. Some of which would appear in my all time top 10. But not films from the last 5 years. All clear? Thought not. No matter.

You can work out where to source them. My task now is persuade BD and LD, now thankfully returned to base, to take the plunge into proper film. Wish me luck.

The best of the last few years some of which might have escaped you

  • Parasite
  • Look Who’s Back
  • Force Majeure
  • Vice
  • Roma
  • Apostasy
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • The Square
  • Beast
  • The Death of Stalin
  • The Piper
  • Elle
  • Graduation
  • The Levelling
  • Rams
  • Victoria
  • Son of Saul
  • Macbeth

All time list contenders (drawn only from those films seen in recent years)

  • Oldboy
  • The Hunt (Vinterberg’s Danish film from 2012 not the nonsense sounding recent blunt satire from the US)
  • Funny Games
  • Empire of the Sun
  • The White Ribbon
  • Plein Soleil
  • Network
  • Ace in the Hole
  • Le Regle de Jeu
  • Taxi Driver
  • This is England
  • Twelve Angry Men
  • All About Eve
  • Berberian Sound Studio
  • In Bruges
  • Dancing at Lughnasa
  • Hidden
  • Tokyo Story
  • Night of the Hunter
  • Vertigo
  • The Godfather Trilogy
  • Double Indemnity
  • There Will Be Blood
  • Dead of Night
  • Babette’s Feast

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel

Wilton’s Music Hall, 16th January 2020

I was much taken with one of Told By An Idiot’s previous productions Napoleon Disrobed, which featured its co-founder and AD Paul Hunter alongside Ayesha Antoine, whose career unsurprisingly has gone fro strength to strength after she starting out in soaps, and was directed by the shape-shifting wonder that is Kathryn Hunter. For TSTOCCAS Paul Hunter similarly spins a yarn from an alternative history, this time inspired by the chance, and brief, meeting between Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel in 1910 on a passenger ship bound for New York as part of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe. Subsequently for two years Stan acted as Charlie’s understudy, though he, Chaplin, barely acknowledged this.

In homage to the silent movie era the action is largely silent, with on stage piano accompaniment from Sara Alexander, (to a score from talented jazz composer Zoe Rahman which even manages to squeeze in a hip-hop routine), who is also roped in to the action as Charlie’s Mum, alongside the diminutive Amalia Vitale who plans Charlie, Jerome Marsh-Reid who plays a lanky Stan, as well as a few supporting roles, Nick Haverson who plays impressario Fred Karno as well as Oliver Hardy, Charlie’s Dad and others. Ionna Curelea’s set, an ingenious children’s playground ship/theatre/hotel that works vertically as much as it does horizontally and fills the Wilton’s stage, is the backdrop for a jaw-dropping display of perfectly choreographed physical theatre. Much credit to physical comedy consultant, master of mime Jos Hauben, and dance choreographer Nuna Sandy. OK so the time, past, future and present jumbled up, and character shifts, even with video (Dom Baker) and lighting (Aideen Malone) cues, are a little tricky to follow but I guess that Paul Hunter, who also directs, has reasoned that the visual comic entertainment is enough to draw us in until the narrative becomes clear. In this he is right.

PH’s mission is to create fantasy out of fact, though with less profound consequences than, say, a certain numpty POTUS, which explains the central scene where Chaplin accidentally bops Stan on the head with a frying pan and disposes of the body overboard, which provides some of the most impressive of many pratfalls and slapstick(s). The more poignant side of early comedy is not left untouched notably in the scenes detailing Charlie’s Victorian London childhood, complete with drunken parents and midnight flits. When even the stamina of three actors plus pianist is not enough to fill the drama an audience member is roped in for piano duty. And, in maybe the funniest episode, Amalia Vitale, who nails Chaplin’s mannerisms, persuades another punter to join her on stage for a swim. All secured through charm alone and without saying a word.

90 minutes is probably as long as the cast can physically deliver and the show might benefit from excising a handful of ideas and scenes but if you really want to see sustained theatrical invention, every mime trick in the book is rolled out, and have more than a chuckle or two, (and thereby distract from multiple Ends of the World angst), then this is I can heartily recommend. I see the tour continues to Northampton and Exeter at the end of this month.

Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House *****

Death in Venice

Royal Opera House, 3rd December 2019

Fresh from the superlative semi-staged version of Peter Grimes from Ed Gardner, the Bergen PO and assorted chums and straight into this. A top drawer new version of Death in Venice from David McVicar. I have fond memories of seeing Deborah Warner’s production of DIV at the ENO with, guess who, Edward Gardner on conducting duty, which also bewitched the SO, (who has also been persuaded by The Turn of the Screw and, though she may not know it, is going to be a fan of Britten opera).

Now I am partial to BB and his operas. As you can see from recent viewings documented hereabouts. They are up there with the best of British cultural expression, indeed the best from anywhere. But that doesn’t me they are all perfect or that creatives can’t fall down when tackling them. Paul Bunyan is a bit bonkers, (the recent ENO outing wisely went with the flow), the Rape of Lucretia has a pretentious and inappropriately Christian libretto from Ronald Duncan, you need to be in the right mood for the Church Parables, I have never seen Owen Wingrave live or in the TV original and Gloriana is, well, just a bit crap. Even the musically bullet-proof, Grimes, TTOTS, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, need sympathetic performers and directors. Billy Budd is always a tricky customer. The comedies/children’s operas are too generous to fail other than in the eyes and ears of the flinty-hearted.

Some say Death in Venice is also a trick(s)y opera though I have never really understood why .(Maybe it’s because it isn’t a simple, straight A to B, with obstacles, misogynistic love story). Here David McVicar got the Edwardian look and feel spot on. DIV is a set, costume and lighting designer’s wet dream and Vicki Mortimer and Paule Constable duly delivered to create exquisite, cinematic, vertical and horizontal tableaux across the 17 scenes with maximum efficiency and impact. The water of the lagoon ever present in the backdrop. With no f*cking around with interpretation. Visconti and Mann would be purring in their graves, (or suing for plagiarism), so precise was the realisation. Even the gondola looked real. And that was with two fellas pushing it. Lynne Page similarly brought just enough to the table with the choreography of the dance scenes. Realistic with just enough grace and artistry especially from our lovely, knowing teenage Tadzio (Leo Dixon) and his irate chum Jaschiu (Olly Bell).

But the real triumph was not having our van Aschenbach go too full-on, homo-erotic, pretentious, unhinged, tortured artist too early. He really is a bit of a ninnyhammer getting all lathered up with the young boys, the culture, the heat, the plague, the offuscazione, all those words, all that useless beauty, that Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic, all that bloody philosophising. (Honestly Gustav, don’t beat yourself up mate). He is though a clever cookie, in control mentally and physically until the lurgy properly strikes, and he can eloquently verbalise. At length. Immense length. In Myfanwy Piper’s appropriately mannered libretto. Brought to life by the beautiful voice of Mark Padmore. Who can act. Even to the back of the stalls.

This isn’t quite a one-man show. The support of Gerald Finley as Traveller/Fop/Gondolier/Manager/Barber/Player/Voice of Dionysius made this very special. Has there ever been a more inspired piece of operatic doubling (and not just in the service of cheap laughs and flimsy plotting) or a more talented singer/actor to pull it off? And, as if that wasn’t enough we get the sweet counter-tenor of Tim Mead interjecting as hunky tourist Apollo. And the never-ending stream of “extras” including the likes of Elizabeth McGorian as the Lady of the Pearls and, get this, Rebecca Evans as the Strawberry Seller.

But the ever present, tireless Mr Padmore is what made this special as we go deep inside von Aschenbach’s head. An operatic Hamlet. What is real and what is imagined? Messrs McVicar and Padmore don’t tell, giving the creepy Don’t Look Now Venice a wide berth, but do largely make sense of GvA’s meanderings and even make him seem human rather than the vessel for Thomas Mann’s symbolism and aestheticism. Not that it matters. BB’s music is so clever, haunting, sparse, ascetic, with the repetitions, motifs, and the gamelan shimmers, that it tells the story, conjures up place and inhabits character all by itself. Even at the end, like GvA consumed by his own mortality, BB was turning out perfection with that poignant passacaglia, (a link back to the Doric Quartet’s muscular performance of BB’s final quartet a couple of weeks previous), and Richard Farnes and the ROH orchestra know exactly what is required of them. This score then is the truly beautiful.

25 years since the ROH last staged DIV but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t come back soonest. So go see what I mean. And pay up for a decent perch as, by ROH standards, Britten comes cheap. All the toffs seemingly never tiring of OTT Italian C19 flim-flammery or worse still Wagnerian guff.

I see I have a couple more outings with Gustav van Aschenbach later in the year. Ivo van Hove and Ramsay Naar will be bringing ITA’s interpretation over to the Barbican in April with music from Nico Muhly and the great Greg Hicks will be serving up his solo turn at the Arcola in June. I expect they will be quite different.

Orphee at ENO review ***

Orphee

English National Opera, 27th November 2019

The Mask of Orpheus. Extraordinary music, fine singing, showy production. Orpheus and Eurydice. Fine music, mostly, superb singing, faulty production. So how would the Tourist fair in his third encounter with the Orpheus myth in the ENO season. Well since you ask. Best production of the three by far courtesy of Netia Jones, who also oversaw costume and video, and Lizzie Clachlan’s multi-faceted set. Mind you I knew just how good Ms Jones’s ideas can be, heavy though they are on monochrome video visuals, thanks to her memorable take on Britten’s Curlew River in 2013. Singing, well singing-through, since the libretto is a pretty straight, (here closely translated into English by the versatile Ms Jones and Emma Jenkins), lift from the Cocteau 1950 film script, that was more than up to the task notably from Nicholas Lester as our eponymous hero, coloratura Jennifer France as the baddie Princess and, unsurprisingly, Nicky Spence as the ominous chauffeur Heurtebise. Music faultlessly executed by the ENO orchestra as usual under the baton of Geoffrey Paterson, though it is near two hours of Philip Glass with all the good and bad that implies.

So why wasn’t I bowled over. Well I think that comes down to the source material. Jean Cocteau was a wilful fellow, with talent to burn across media, even when off his tits on opium, but he did have his bugbears and did not see any problem with excess self-love. His film is Art with a big A, about love, death and jealously like its source, but also about how the Artist operates in a realm far beyond that occupied by us ordinary mortals. Indeed Orphee here is a misunderstood poet who seeks immortality. With the help of a lot of mirrors. Cocteau thought he was special and was determined to show us. More Narcissus and Thanatos than Orpheus maybe, though with more than a whiff of grumpy old man misogyny. Mind you Cocteau himself came in for a lot of criticism from the artistic elite, notably the Surrealists, which was often tinged with homophobia. The most obvious inspiration for his aesthetic in the film is surely Man Ray.

The film is a mix of dream and naturalism set in 1950s Paris. A drunken night out ends with younger poet rival to Orphee, Cegeste (Anthony Gregory) mown down by a couple of motor bikes after a fight. The mysterious Princess steps in to help, but instead abducts Orphee to a chateau, where she, her lackeys and the reanimated (!) Cegeste disappear. No problem as Heurtebise returns Orphee to his hone where the coppers, wife put upon Eurydice (Sarah Tynan) and feminist friend Aglaonice (Rachael Lloyd) are wondering what he has been up to. Heurtebise moves in and falls for the pregnant Eurydice. Orphee gets obsessed with the radio which may be talking to him via some ropey poetry, Eurydice is murdered by the Princess’s lackeys and Heurtebise and Orphee make a trip to the Underworld. A dodgy Court says he can take Orphee back, subject to the usual condition, when he declares he no longer fancies Death/The Princess. Eurydice fatally looks at hubby in the car mirror and so back to square one, with Orphee joining her after getting shot at the bar where all this shenanigans kicked off. Back to the Underworld to have memories wiped for O & E with Death/Princess and Heurtebise checking in for good.

Worth knowing all this and brushing up on the synopsis though even so I confess to losing the thread a few times through the 18 scenes. And to not fully appreciating the point of the many “framing” extras that Ms Jones introduces. No matter. Glass’s score contains just enough variation to demarcate the shifts in the odd narrative and in character, (this was still well before Glass drifted into auto-pilot mode), and visually the production is a treat with Netia Jones emulating Cocteau’s own mix of lo and hi (for the time) cinematographic technique to provide an equally striking impression. Cocteau made it up as he went along. Ms Jones, along with Lucy Carter (lighting) and Danielle Agami (choreography), and unlike some other directors at the ENO recently, takes a far more methodical approach, which, deliberately mirrors the film (with direct video quotes), and its “making of” successor, Le Testament d’Orphee, whilst still remembering to be an opera. As I think Glass envisaged even if he wrote for French not English and maybe with a smaller stage in mind.

Philip Glass long harboured an ambition to convert Cocteau’s vision into opera after spending 1954 in a hedonistic whirl in Paris. (He returned in the mid 1960s to study under Nadia Boulanger). It was composed in 1991 just after his wife, artist Candy Jernigan, died unexpectedly from liver cancer. He went on to compose two further operas based on Cocteau’s films, La Belle et la Bete (1994) and Les Enfants Terribles (1996).

Solaris at the Lyric Hammersmith review ****

Solaris

Lyric Hammersmith, 2nd November 2019

One book, a Soviet TV adaptation, two films. And now a play. And, between us, the SO and I have all the bases covered. SO, a big fan of Stanislaw Lem’s ground-breaking 1961 dense sci-fi/horror novel, me, unusually tolerant of Tarkovsky’s high culture, languid 1972 film, and both fans of Soderbergh’s more straightforward 2002 remake with Clooney playing Dr Kelvin and Natasha McElhone his dead wife. .

With David Greig as adaptor, having thoroughly succeeded with Touching the Void and The Suppliant Women in his last two outings, and some very favourable reviews from the initial run at the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh where DG is Artistic Director, we were both quite excited, particularly after our epic bus journey to get there. (As time expanded it felt like the A310 itself was auditioning for the role of the eponymous blue planet).

A good sized and young audience for the Saturday matinee, and some mesmeric rolling wave cinematography from Tov Belling and Katie Milwright, and the reveal of Hyemi Shin’s bright monochrome set only increased our expectations. Not for the last time I was reminded of the look, feel and intention of Alistair McDowall’s excellent X at the Royal Court a few years ago. What followed was a stripped-down, simplified, but still essentially faithful rendition of the story, (though sticking mostly to the Tarkovsky film) which didn’t quite live up to its theatrical potential.

A gender switched Polly Frame plays Kris Kelvin, the scientist sent to investigate the strange goings-on at the space station studying the water planet Solaris. There she meets the wary Sartorius, (Jade Ogugua in another smart gender switch), and the geeky Snow (Fode Simbo). The planet itself is apparently conscious, sending “gifts” first in the form of objects and then as visitors from the crew’s past. Dr Gibarian, recently dead, possibly by his own hand, possibly a cancer, has left videos, (cue a giant sized projection of Hugo Weaving), offering Kris his insights. Much of the plot however, like the Soderbergh film, centres on Kris and her relationship with her visitor, Aussie surf boy, Ray (Keegan Joyce), her last, uninhibited, love who may offer her some sort of emotional redemption. Unfortunately this version of Ray, who is real and not just a figment, literally has no back story and cannot cope with the absence this creates.

This being a play we clearly need words, however good the technical prowess of the creatives, (including, in addition to the above, lighting from Paul Jackson, picking up on the planet’s red and blue suns, outstanding sound and composition from Jethro Woodward and further visual effects from Toby Angwin). David Greig’s adaptation cleverly obviates the need for prologue, flashback, exposition or resolution. The three surviving humans, Snow and Sartorius being significantly less fucked up by the experience than their literary equivalents, collectively work through the implications of what they have stumbled upon together. But this is where the text slightly lets down the production. Having set up the, shall we say, echo chamber, the opportunity for the three to share their own stories and to debate what this means for wider humanity is only partly explored. No one likes a talky play but surely here, there is after all a vast, infinite intelligence playing with our protagonists on the doorstep, a bit of philosophical theory might not have gone amiss. Existential isolation, infinite space, the problem of consciousness, all are central to Solaris. And these are scientists so no reason why they can’t come over a bit clever clogs.

And this could easily have been done without losing the human dimension. Whilst we do not see Snow’s visitor who he has “destroyed” we do Sartorious’, a small girl child, and learn why she is there, and Ray and Kris’s past, and present, attraction is explored at length. Matthew Lutton, who is AD at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, who co-produced, oversees the impressive staging and the Aussie end of the casting, Hugo Weaving (who was sooooo good in Patrick Melrose as the abusive Dad) and Keegan Joyce, are more than a match for the Brits. The short scenes and cinematic cuts, with shuttering screen, prompt dislocation, but with nimble stage management from Kiri Baildon Smith and team, do not impede momentum.

This was, in spite of the missed opportunities, a satisfying piece of theatre that perhaps deserved an audience beyond just Melbourne, Edinburgh and London, though these are three of the finest cities on our planet. I see that Mr Greig’s next project is a musical version of Local Hero. Meanwhile I see us Poms are exporting Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling and Dennis Kelly’s Girls and Boys to the good people of Melbourne, both of which I can heartily recommend, to add to delights such as Photograph 51, Kiss of the Spider Woman and True West coming up. And in Sydney I see the Theatre Company is showing The Beauty Queen of Leenane as we speak, with The Deep Blue Sea, The Writer, Rules for Living and A View From The Bridge to come.

The Lovely Bones at the Rose Theatre Kingston review *****

The Lovely Bones

Rose Theatre Kingston, 26th October 2019

The Lovely Bones, co-produced by Birmingham Rep, Royal and Derngate, Northern Stage and Liverpool Everyman, is just to wrap up its tour in Chichester. If you saw it good on you. If you didn’t then make sure you sign up for what ever director Melly Still does next. After triumphs such as My Brilliant Friend, which you can catch at the NT as we speak, Captain Corelli’s Mandarin, her RSC Cymbeline, and further back her NT Coram’s Boy, it is plain she is the Queen of physical theatre adaptation. What with her role as Associate at the Rose, and with Christopher Haydon about to arrive as the new Artistic Director, and better seating, things are really looking up for the Tourist’s local theatre.

Now some might recoil from Ms Still’s insistence on the primacy of visual spectacle alongside the text. Not me. And not, based on a spot of vox-popping of neighbours post performance, the audiences. Or it must be said most critics. To which we must give many thanks to adapter Bryony Lavery. Ms Lavery is set for a busy 2020. Her 1997 original play Last Easter will have its London premiere at the Orange Tree, she is adapting Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage for the Bridge Theatre, her adaptation of Oliver Twist with Ramps on the Moon will tour, her adaptation of Oscar and the Pink Lady will take the stage in Sheffield and Theatre Royal Stratford East have chosen her musical version of Red Riding Hood for its Xmas 2020 panto. Not bad for a pensioner.

It is pretty easy to see why collaborators keep returning to her as an adapter of broad appeal theatre. Of course the subject and structure of The Lovely Bones, which is narrated by the now dead Susie Salmon, raped and murdered by a neighbour aged 14, may not quite fall into the category broad appeal. But Alice Sebbold’s 2002 debut book was a best seller and the 2009 film directed by Peter Jackson, whilst generating a mixed critical response, grossed around US$100mn. So safe to say it has “brand recognition”. And, whilst the subject matter is initially, and self evidently, unsettling, the way the story develops, with Susie torn between willing her family and friends to nail her killer and watching them get on with their lives and get over her death, is more compelling. In someone ways it is an unsentimental story told, deliberately, in a sentimental way. There is a Heaven but not that of Christian dogma, her family is broken by her death, but it still celebrates American family and community, it does operate like a slickly paced, artfully plotted thriller, but that was not the real point of its writing, there is some supernatural mumbo-jumbo but, obviously given the initial formal liberty the reader will take it in her stride, and the baddie does get his comeuppance in a melodramatic twist.

So there is enough in the way of event and character to justify a theatrical interpretation. And the mechanism by which Ms Laverty and Ms Still realise this is disarmingly straightforward, In the book Susie narrates whilst looking down on family, friends and the killer from her Heaven. Here Susie walks among them, although of course they cannot see or sense her. Until, of course, they can. Heaven, with its host of other victims, led by Franny (Avita Jay) who becomes Susie’s mentor, appears and disappears at the drop of a jump light, but mostly we are in the world of the living with the brilliant Charlotte Beaumont’s teen Susie as stroppy cheerleader in her own investigation armed only with conviction and banana yellow loons.

Ava Innes Jabares-Pita’s set is overhung with a huge sloping two way mirror, not a new conceit but one that works to great effect here, as we are drawn to see events from two different perspectives. Otherwise we have a bare stage with floor lighting to symbolise house, and with the busy cast carting stuff on and off stage (cornfield, clapboard houses, clothing) to advance the many scenes. As with Ms Still’s previous work, it is lighting (Matt Haskins), sound (Helen Skiera), music (Dave Price, whose playlist guides us efficiently through 70s and 80s) and movement (Mike Ashcroft) which generate the thrills through the brilliantly choreographed ensemble. Scenes begin as quickly as others end so that the whole story is crammed into less than a couple of hours and there are countless moments of theatrical ingenuity.

Of course with all this visual activity theatre-makers run the risk of scrambling the plot and cartooning the characters. Not here though. Ms Laverty gives us as much dialogue as we need, leaning on Susie’s punchy narration, without, as far as I could make out, condensing any of the key plot elements . And the characterisations, Dad Jack’s (Jack Sandle) guilt and grief, Mum Abigail’s (Catrin Aaron) withdrawal, sister Lindsey’s (Fanta Barrie) indefatigability, detective Len Fennerman’s (Huw Parmenter) entanglement, are all sufficiently well sketched to hit home. OK so maybe the various friends, mysterio-goth Ruth Connors (Leigh Lothian), sensitive boyfriend material Ray Singh (Samuel Gosrani), (and his No Nonsense Mum Ruana), and the additional composites created in the form of Sophie (Radhika Aggarwal) and Leah (Leah Haile), only just about stand up to scrutiny, but this is true of the book too. And the less said about hard drinking, homily wielding Grandma Lyn (Lynda Rookie) who comes to look after the family when Abigail leaves, the better.

Nicholas Khan as the killer Harvey screams creepy psycho from the off, but as with the rest of the production, and in keeping with the book, effect and momentum are prioritised over psychological insight. He is convincing mind you. Then again so is Samuel Gosrani doubling up as family dog Holiday who is, in that doggy way, immediately on to Harvey. Those familiar with Melly Still’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin will know just what the actor as animal routine can bring to this sort of production.

Of course there are times when theatre is best served by two people getting deep and wordy. But its real power lies in its dynamism and in the shared experience, and, in this regard, Melly Still is, in my book, a brilliant practitioner. I am willing to bet that the version of The Lovely Bones on the night that I enjoyed it, (for just a tenner, grab those secret seats people), will have looked different to that presented on the first night in Birmingham. Which is exactly as I would want it to be.

A Taste of Honey at Richmond Theatre review ***

A Taste Of Honey

Richmond Theatre, 9th October 2019

Not quite sure I know how a production such as this is taken under the wing of the National Theatre, and let’s face it it’s none of my business anyway. But I do think I can work out why this particular tour, which has taken in in some fair sized commercial theatres came to pass. This production of A Taste of Honey, with Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn in the leads, was a qualified success in 2014 on the South Bank. But the NT needs to be more, er, National. So spread the cost and risk so that the NT provides the brand and product and the theatres stump up the cash. Take a renowned play, though probably better known as a film, with historical appeal and contemporary relevance, and wait for the curious punters to roll in. Let Bijan Sheibani, who has since had a monster hit with Barber Shop Chronicles, (which, in another of the coincidences that continue to punctuate the Tourist’s cultural adventures, I saw for the first time literally the next day), show his best. And cast big TV and musicals star Jodie Prenger as the brassy Helen, alongside relative newcomer, Gemma Dobson as punchy daughter Josephine.

Shelagh Delaney famously wrote A Taste of Honey, the archetypal kitchen sink drama, when she was just 19. It would be pretty unusual for a working class woman to announce herself as a writer for theatre in this way in 2019. To do so in 1958 was, literally, a miracle. For which Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop, who first staged it at the Theatre Royal Stratford, were rightly grateful. Whilst she never quite went on to repeat the success of this mix of rich characterisation, sincere dialogue and dramatic allusion in her subsequent work, (the harsh reviews for her second play The Lion in Love stopped her from writing for the stage for the next 20 years), her place in theatrical history. Her ambition was fuelled after seeing a production of Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme and thinking she could do better. She was right. But in a world dominated by grammar school boys, she was never entirely at home, despite her fierce intelligence.

ATOH is still remarkable for its absence of judgement, its focus on two irreverent women, its atmosphere and its poetry. Helen and Josephine rub along, and rub up against each other, in their dingy Salford flat. Helen escapes with booze and dickhead blokes, namely one-eyed spiv Peter (Tom Varey). Teenager Josephine escapes through a fling with Nigerian sailor Jimmie (Durone Stokes). Pregnant she then turns to her gay, arty student best friend Geoffrey (another talented newcomer Stuart Thompson) for tea, sympathy and bitching.

If you don’t the story it is pretty easy to guess, its novelty, and scandal, having worn off with repeated replication. No matter it is still brilliantly executed. Or at least it would be in this production if it wasn’t for the endless and unnecessary scene changes, the very busy set from Hildegard Bechtler ,which just didn’t fit properly into the Richmond stage, the fussy lighting of Paul Anderson, and the jazz interludes from the three piece band of David O’Brien, Alex Davis and George Bird, awkwardly wedged on stage, with music from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell and on stage singing. In moderation all of these elements would work but it was all just a bit too much distraction for a text that doesn’t need and, towards the end, does, whisper it, run out of steam a bit.

Whilst I am at it Jodie Prenger and Tom Varey also verge a little too much on the side of over expression which leaves the determined yet vulnerable Gemma Dobson as the best of the five strong cast.

I am very glad that I got to see this important slice of theatrical history and I think it will do well when it comes to London at the end of the tour at the Trafalgar Studios. But if we want a better idea of why it is, even through the prism of sixty years of social change, (for the better of course), such vital drama, then Tony Richardson’s film is a better bet. I see Rita Tushingham (there she is above), whose debut role as Josephine was lauded nearly as much as Shelagh Delaney’s screenplay, is starring in Edgar Wright’s upcoming horror film alongside other legends Diana Rigg, (any way else out there fantasising about Lady Oleanna turning up at their Christmas lunch), and Terence Stamp. I wonder why. Looking forward to that.