Small Island at the National Theatre review *****

Small Island

National Theatre Olivier

If you know Andrea Levy’s Small Island either from the original 2004 book, (not me I confess), or the 2009 Two part BBC adaptation with script from Sarah Williams and Paula Milne and starring the inimitable Ruth Wilson and Naomie Harris then you will know roughly what to expect from Helen Edmundson’s adaptation directed by NT head honcho Rufus Norris. This is an epic social history, set in post-WWII Jamaica and London, and centred on the lives of two ordinary couples, or more specifically two, extraordinary, women, Hortense and Queenie.

It is a brilliant story, brilliantly told, but, even with the NT’s formidable financial and creative resources to hand, it was still an ambitious ask to bring it to life on the stage. Now I reckon Rufus Norris has been unfairly pilloried in some quarters during his stewardship at the NT. Not all the new commissions have come off but there have been some absolute belters as well. Keeping the progressive and conservative stakeholder congregations onside at the NT would test the patience of a saint, especially in these interesting times, and I reckon RN has had a pretty good stab at it. And a couple of the projects where he has taken the director’s helm himself, Everyman and Mosquitos, were superb. Yet for me he is at his best when pulling together multiple narratives and kaleidoscopic forms; as long as the writing on which any work is created is up to snuff and the stories he helps tell make an immediate emotional connection. London Road, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, The Amen Corner, Feast, (both of which I missed), Festen and, I gather his takes on Cabaret, all fit that bill. So I was pretty sure this would work and fill the Oliver stage with technicolour life again.

And it does. Superbly. We first meet Hortense (Leah Harvey) in the Jamaican school she teaches in alongside glamorous American Mrs Ryder (Amy Forrest). A hurricane is coming. Michael (CJ Beckford), the rebellious son of Mr Philip (Trevor Laird) and Miss Ma (Jacqueline Boatswain), who are also Hortense’s, very strict, stand-in parents, (she is the illegitimate daughter of Mr Philip’s affluent white cousin). arrives. Hortense loves Michael but he has eyes only for Mrs Ryder. Cue a brilliant set piece prologue, bravura lighting (Paul Anderson), sound (Ian Dickinson) and, especially, projection design from Jon Driscoll, taking us through the storm, interspersed with Michael and Hortense’s childhood, (not sure who played little M and H but blimey they are brave), and an explosive argument at the dinner table. In this Tempest-ian prologue it soon becomes clear we are in for an aural and visual treat thanks to these creatives in tandem with the sedulous stage and costume design of Katrina Lindsay, music of Benjamin Kwasi Burrell and movement of Coral Messam. Heaven knows how many hours they all put in but not was worth it.

This is worth the ticket price alone. Especially if, like the Tourist, you only pay £15. The proper reviews have come in and they are excellent. If Billers at the Guardian and DC at the Telegraph both say 5 stars then you would be a t*t to miss it. There are plenty of tickets left towards the end of the run from which to take your pick. With acting of this level and stories with this much passion I would happily have paid £75 for centre front stalls but trust me, with stagecraft of this quality and scale you’ll be fine in the cheap seats as well.

Now the characters do take a little time to fully come to life. The setting does dwarf the actors a little in the prologue and, in the preview I attended, the delivery of the dialogue initially lacked a bit of fizz. But when we move to England, the “mother country”, to meet Queenie (Aisling Loftus) and her awkward, repressed suitor, bank clerk Bernard (Andrew Rothney), and then track the progress of Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), during the war as an airman and then when he returns after the war, with Hortense who has married him to realise here dream of escape, things really begin to crank up.

Andrea Levy’s story, replayed deftly by Helen Edmundson, is built on memorable episodes which together create an irresistible momentum topped, at the end of the first, long, half by the arrival of the Empire Windrush, and then in the shorter, more constrained second half, set in 1948, by the return of Bernard and the momentous decision which finally binds the two couples. Queenie’s date with Bernard in the cinema, her first encounter with Michael’s irresistible charm after he too arrives in GB to fight for Empire, Hortense mistaking Gilbert for Michael on first meeting, the ill-fated fight in Yorkshire, Hortense’s desperate betrayal of best friend Celia (Shiloh Coke). Queenie’s tender care for her traumatised father-in-law Arthur (David Fielder), the overt racism Gilbert and Hortense encounter, as postie and would-be teacher, (audience visibly outraged), and from Bernard after he returns. And many more. Each scene is expertly navigated and beautifully mounted.

Small Island is, of course, primarily about race and prejudice, and the journey that the protagonists take, both geographical and emotional. It reflects Andrea Levy’s own, mixed race heritage, and the legacy of Empire. In this adaptation though, and maybe just because of the brilliance of Leah Harvey as the proud, uptight, determined Hortense and Aisling Loftus as the openhearted, optimistic but tough Queenie, I was particularly drawn to the compromises the women had to make to carve out any sort of meaningful life for themselves. All the main characters have dreams that, in order to be realised need to confront unpalatable realities, but the two women, in their own, intertwined, ways have so much more to overcome. This, ultimately, is what makes them so sympathetic and the story itself so warm, uplifting and, dare I say, inspirational.

Without the somewhat syrupy narration, and with the exuberant, (even in some of the darker passages), innovation which was required to bring each scene to life, this stage version is more moving and satisfying than the TV version. It is around three hours, even without the interval, but it never feels like it and, though I can’t be sure not having read the book, it seems to offer a more than faithful distillation of Ms Levy’s intention. Unfortunately she passed away in February before the play opened so we can’t be sure but she was apparently fully signed up to director and adaptor’s vision . The programme contains an extract from her 2014 essay “Back To My Own Country”. Everyone should read it.

“We are here because you were there.” I was particularly struck by this quote from Ambalavaner Sivanandan, prime mover in the Institute of Race Relations, highlighted in the programme notes from Leah Cowan. Remember everyone who came to Britain from Jamaica and elsewhere was a British citizen. Same rights as my grandad. Who just happened to be, I knew even as a child brought up in an entirely white monoculture, an ugly, visceral racist. He’s long gone. Yet it seems the open abuse he habitually lobbed at his black neighbours still hasn’t.

Small Island with bowl you over as a piece of theatre, make you laugh and maybe even cry, but it should also make you think long and hard about our shared history. Do go.

(As an aside can I beg Naomie Harris, Hortense in the TV adaptation, to return to the London stage. You will know her from her film roles as Eve Moneypenny in the last few Bonds or Moonlight, amongst others. I think the last time she was in the theatre was in Danny Boyle’s amazing sounding Frankenstein which I never got to see. Come to think of it it would be good to see Mr Boyle’s boundless imagination let loose again on the Olivier stage. He would fill it I am sure. As for Ruth Wilson, Queenie in the TV Small Island, anyone who saw her magic in Ivo van Hove/Patrick Marber’s Hedda Gabler will be counting the days to her UK stage return).

Betrayal at the Harold Pinter Theatre review *****

Betrayal

Harold Pinter Theatre, 1st April 2019

The Tourist never had a great deal of confidence in his ability in his chosen career. Unfortunate in a world where self-belief is everything, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it was misplaced. Still many of those he had cause to interact with seemed to disagree for which he is eternally grateful.

I would be surprised if Tom Hiddleston has this problem. With good reason. He is a mighty fine actor. And I think he knows it. And he is a gorgeous looking fella. And I see he went out with Susannah Fielding, herself a brilliant stage actor, to wit her turns in American Psycho, The Merchant of Venice, The Beaux Stratagem and Bull, and, most recently giving Steve Coogan lessons in comic timing in the uneven, though still often brilliant, This Time with Alan Partridge.

Until now I had only seen TH on stage in Cheek By Jowl’s The Changeling years ago, missing his award winning outings in Cymbeline, Othello, Coriolanus and the limited edition RADA Hamlet. And since I can’t be doing with all that super-hero gibberish the only film I know him from is Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel High Rise, which is the very definition of pretentious, art-house cinema. Obviously I quite liked it. So it is his TV roles in Wallander, The Hollow Crown and The Night Manager which I know best. He shines. And it is not like he isn’t up against some pretty stiff competition here.

So we come to Betrayal, the conclusion of Jamie Lloyd’s stupendous Pinter season. At first glance taking the role of the cuckold publisher Robert, rather than literary agent Jerry, his mate who has the affair with his wife Emma, seems a surprising decision. Yet he doesn’t even have to open his mouth, just lurking at the back of Soutra Gilmour’s revolve set, for this to immediately make sense. I have said before that there have been a handful of actors in this season who just seem get Harold Pinter’s language. By which I mean they turn it into something natural whilst still retaining that rhythm, whether it is passive or aggressive, that makes it unique to him. Tamsin Greig, Rupert Graves, Al Weaver, Brid Brennan, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Danny Dyer, John Heffernan, Ron Cook. Not always who you might expect but these where the ones who nailed it. To which we can now add Tom H. But Mr H also captures an inner emotional rhythm which makes him very, very special.

It helps that Betrayal, beyond its “going back in time” conceit, is one of HP’s least tricksy plays, indeed it can almost be delivered as the kind of naturalistic melodramas that HP first appeared in as an actor. And that Charlie Cox, an actor whose work is entirely new to me, and Zawe Ashton, who I remember from Jamie Lloyd’s persuasive, if sometimes wayward, production of Genet’s The Maids at Trafalgar Studios, are similarly impressive. And that Jamie Lloyd has pretty much turned himself into the best director of HP since HP himself, (The Homecoming at Trafalgar Studios still ranks as his best). I expect a definitive Caretaker to appear in the not too distinct future given the box office success here.

Betrayal, as I am sure you know, first appeared in 1978, with the affair which it dramatises beginning in 1968 when the play ends, and ending in 1977 when the play begins, with scenes from 1975, 1974, 1971, and proceeding chronologically within the other pivotal year of 1973. I am sure you also know that it is loosely based on HP’s own affair in the 1960’s with TV presenter Joan Bakewell. HP was simultaneously working on his great, unfinished, paean to Proust, a very clear influence. The structure means we already know the what, so that HP can focus on the how, and, especially get to the core of the deceptions to learn the why, of the betrayals. With the sparse plain set, few props and having all three actors always on stage the tripartite relationship is emphasised. What they know and don’t know. What they hide from each other and from themselves. The hurt they cause each other. The victories, defeats and compromises, for there is calculation here entwined with the passions. The key moments, the memories, of the affair, the marriage and the friendship, leap out with uncanny resonance from Mr Lloyd’s minimalist treatment. Robert’s attempts to intimidate Jerry in the restaurant scene and the pain when he finds out on the holiday in Venice, the best single scene of this entire season. Jerry’s needy, self-centredness. Emma’s ill-fated desire for both men. The dependence of the men on each other and on Emma. The truculence of the end of the affair the as mundane mechanics of break up are thrashed out.

As in the rest of the season Jon Clark’s lighting and the Ringham brother’s sound is impeccably delivered. Yet if I had to pick one thing that elevated this Betrayal into something very, very special it is the on stage movement of the three actors – the invisible link between them made visible. The silences are made part of the language and therefore the drama. That’s where Jamie Lloyd has the edge.

One example. The scene where TH is sitting on a chair cuddling Robert and Emma’s child. Whilst she and Jerry are languishing in bed on a stolen afternoon in the flat in Kilburn. Old TH managed to conjure up real tears in the Venice scene but this scene nearly had the Tourist blubbing. In Pinter. WTF.

What next for Tom Hiddleston. Other than the twenty fifth incarnation of this Loki bloke. I can’t wait.

Bodies at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

Bodies

Southwark Playhouse, 26th February 2019

Two’s Company is a theatre company which set out to explore plays written at the time of the Great War but has subsequently gone on to stage the English premiere of Hemingway’s only play and some Pinter productions. Here it has revived one of the most successful of James Saunders’s plays which originally premiered at the Orange Tree Richmond in 1977 before transferring to Hampstead Theatre and the West End. This is the first revival in 20 years or so.

James Saunders (1925-2004) was initially a champion of the Theatre of the Absurd, and even in his later work, (he wrote some 70 plays in all), he sought to push theatrical boundaries. He was closely associated firstly with the Questors Theatre in Ealing, (now one of the largest independent amateur theatres in Europe), and subsequently the Orange Tree.

Now I am not quite sure what attracted the prurient me to this intricate tale of wife-swapping in 1970s West London. Actually that snide observation does play and production a massive disservice. This really is a stealthily constructed portrait of marriage which has universal lessons beyond its central conceit.

Anne, on the surface the archetypal bored housewife, and Mervyn, frazzled and erudite English (head) teacher, are the embittered Ealing couple whose barbed conversation is fuelled by Scotch. So far, so Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. They meet younger couple Helen and David, something in marketing, and become bessies. However we join them a decade after they initially befriended, Helen and David having returned to the seething maelstrom that is Esher from the US. We discover that they left after the couples swapped, the casual affair of Anne and David countered by Helen’s more calculated seduction of Mervyn, and then returned to, their partners, all those years ago. Helen and David have undergone some fairly intensive therapy to overcome the emotional impact, whilst Anne and Mervyn have simply buried it and their other “neuroses”. The therapy in question was a actual thing, Erhard Seminars Training, which the programme explains, went well beyond the usual hippyish 1970s mumbo-jumbo into some fairly aggressive group interventions. Worked for some apparently, though the organisation was dogged by accusations of brainwashing, bullying and extortion.

Anyway it has turned David, and Helen on the surface, into models of emotional stoicism and patronising rejectors of consumerism. Mervyn though is having none of that and, niceties dispatched, starts to pick away, at hypocrisies past and present, culminating in a full-on, pissed-up, stripped-bare (not literally but it might have worked) diatribe. These are all well-read people, they read on stage, which makes their opening expositional monologues, and subsequent conversation and interaction, all the more articulate. James Saunders clearly had a gift for provocative dialogue and the lucid four hander set-up is the perfect vehicle to show this off, especially when contrasted with an off-stage sub-plot of Simpson, a troubled, poetry obsessed, student of Mervyn’s.

Out of the mouths of his morally compromised characters Mr Saunders seems to conjure up rafts of argument that never feel too forced or contrived. Indulgent, middle-class philosophising under pressure can become tiresome in some playwright’s hands. Not here. I’ll admit that the absence of interruption feels a little less than naturalistic at first but is explained by Anne’s hauteur and the younger couple’s therapy. This leaves Mervyn as the apoplectic centrepiece and Tim Welton certainly lets it all come out in his closing heft of a monologue, an impassioned defence of human frailty. Annabel Mullion as Anne may not be gifted with quite the same knockout lines but when she gets her chance she offers a masterclass in waspish scorn from her chaise longue. Peter Prentice’s David, complete with black polo-neck, exudes the priggish certainty of the spiritual convert, and Alix Dunmore cleverly reveals the doubt under the surface of the willowy Helen.

Alex Marker’s set is a faithful Abigail’s Party like reconstruction of a 1970s lounge split by a jagged line, (and some sort of Atomium caper), to symbolise the fissures in the relationships. Costumes (Emily Stuart) and lighting (Neill Brinkworth) all expertly capture the 70s vibe and Tricia Thorn’s delicate direction doesn’t even attempt to distract from this excellent text.

I’ll admit that there were a couple of brief longuers across the two hours or so, but nothing to trouble the Tourist’s lardy bum on the Southwark Little’s ungenerous benches. The Tourist has sat through a few “lost classics” in the past few years that were nothing of the sort. This was, give or take, the real deal. It would be interesting to see more of James Saunders work though I doubt it will happen. (I also see that he was responsible for the script of Bloomers, the sit-com which starred the much-missed Richard Beckinsale of Rising damp and Porridge fame, before his untimely death. Never saw it. Mind you it sounds like it was infected by bog-standard 1970s misogyny).

Stan and Ollie film review ****

Stan and Ollie, 22nd January 2019

For the avoidance of doubt the two fellas above are not Steve Coogan and John C Reilly, the stars of film Stan and Ollie, nor indeed are they yer actual Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. No this, obviously is a statue of the comedy duo, courtesy of artist Graham Ibbesson, propped up against a lamp post outside the Coronation Hall in Ulverston near the seaside in South Lakeland, Cumbria. Where Stan Laurel was born. Pretty good likenesses you’ll warrant. Art initiating life imitating art imitating life …. you get the picture.

For imitation is what the film does best as the two lead actors turn in a couple of memorable, painstakingly detailed, turns as the beloved S&O. The story charts the return of S&O, down on their uppers, to Britain in 1953 to undertake a tour, organised by impresario Bernard Delfont (a well cast Rufus Jones). Only the boys are not offered much in the way of quality venues, (Delfont preferring the questionable comedy talents of one Norman Wisdom), so start off playing to tiny, nostalgic crowds Oop North, with Stan reassuring Ollie that, once in London, he can secure the backing for a new film script, a Robin Hood spoof, that will rehabilitate both reputation and bank balance. Word of mouth, and immortal talent, turns the tour into a massive success, and the lads are joined by wives, the devoted and fiercely protective Lucille H (the ever brilliant Shirley Henderson) and the terse Russian Ida (a pitch perfect Nina Arianda), comically hamming up their own rivalry (“two double acts for the price of one”). Cue a falling out and reconciliation when Ollie’s health takes a turn for the worse.

So cliched you could barely make it up. Except that it is true. And these are about the most lovable pair, as portrayed and in reality, that you could want to watch. There are obviously generations, my age or older, who are familiar with Laurel and Hardy from repeats on the telly. There will be other youngun’s as well, I am sure, who will have discovered them through their own volition or Mum and Dad’s reminiscing. Whatever, there was clearly going to be enough of an audience to make this film a success.

Which may also be why it is played so straight. Not straight as in lacking humour. Like I say Messrs Coogan and Reilly have the routines of S&O down to a tee. As they do when it comes to the more complex off-stage/screen personalities. Vocally and physically the resemblances are uncanny. No, it is just that the way the story is told contains next to no surprises. It isn’t mushily sentimental, but it doesn’t take any risks at all. It is cheesy, sweet and melancholic in all the right places. The two leads, director Jon S Baird and writer Jeff Pope (co-writer on Steve Coogan’s other major big screen success Philomena), all plainly, and rightly adore their subjects but a slightly less decorous tone might have paid dividends.

Still the best bits, the dolly shot opening in the Hollywood back-lot, Stan sticking it to Hal Roach (a cameo from Danny Houston), Newcastle in the rain, the “hospital sketch” repetitions (especially the exchange on Ollie’s actual sickbed), the double door routine, the ladies bitching at the reception, the venue interiors, Stan looking wistfully up at the Abbott and Costello film poster, are undoubtedly effective, laden with pathos, humour and affection. Cinematographer Laurie Rose takes much of the credit and the make-up and prosthetics of Jeremy Woodhead and Mark Coulier, turning John C Reilly into Oliver Hardy, especially in the later scenes, is remarkable.

All in all a very nice, touching and amusing film. Make of that what you will.