Dessert at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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Dessert

Southwark Playhouse, 5th August

Dessert is the first play I have seen from actor/playwright Oliver Cotton and I have to say that overall I enjoyed it. Subtle it ain’t but it makes its points with a deal of humour, and occasionally, an enlightening punch. The title gives an insight: it’s a dinner party, dessert is coming, until a turn of events forces characters and audience to contemplate whether what they get in life is fair: whether they get their “just desserts”.

Hugh Fennell (played with amoral certainty by Michael Simkins) is a very rich self made man, who seems to have made his money buying and selling public companies. (As usual with dramatic accounts of “people in finance” Mr Cotton exhibits a pretty shaking understanding of how modern, neo-liberal mixed economies work which irks me immensely, but, no matter, we have our demon). He and his underwritten wife, Gill, (Alexandra Gilbreath) are entertaining American friends, slimey Wesley Barnes (Stuart Milligan) and Meredith (Teresa Banham). Dinner is served by Roger (a fine Graham Turner), the Fennells’ “man” who from the off shows signs of mental instability. The dinner party sets up a quick debate around provenance in art, price and value via Hugh’s newly acquired “maybe” Giorgione.

Cue the arrival of Eddie Williams (a splendid performance littered with malevolent sarcasm from Stephen Hagan). Now I would hesitate to call the “elite class dinner party interrupted by a stranger (real or imagined) with malicious intent” hackneyed but it is hardly untested. No matter. It works. Eddie is a soldier, leg damaged in Afghanistan, whose newsagent Dad invested life savings (lesson: always diversify your assets) into one of Hugh’s “companies”. It went belly up though Hugh somehow secured a whopping pension as a result. We then have an accident with the aforementioned painting and heated arguments over whether the Fennells and Barnes’s “deserve” their wealth. Some of this is perfunctory but some is insightful and there are a couple of speeches from Eddie which Stephen Hagan invests with real passion. No dumb squaddie cliche here. And the twist by which Eddie plans to exact revenge is sweet.

Under Trevor Nunn’s direction the play trips along and nothing is left uncovered. It is laugh at loud at points. But it is simplistic. That is not to say we need some even-handed defence extolling the virtues of capitalism. Far from it. But once its main point is made the play doesn’t really move on. Still full house at the SP who clearly loved it.

Queen Anne at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***

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Queen Anne

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 3rd August 2017

Tricky customers history plays. How to introduce the characters and explain events without slackening the dramatic pace. It’s OK if your Will Shakespeare. He wrote the history. Or at least someone before him wrote something, which he then purloined and turned it into a great work of art with those words, oh those beautiful words. And ever since people have half-believed his stories were based on solid facts. Mind you historical “facts” are a slippery business anyway. Always shaped by the narrator. I’m with the master of wry Alan Bennett: “History is just one f*cking thing after another”. A quote he stole in any event from a distinguished academic, though no-one seems sure which prof. said it first. See what I mean.

Anyway the writer of Queen Anne, Helen Edmundson opts for the direct approach to exposition with characters bluntly announcing their identity and, when necessary, the unfolding key events. This ensures that we the audience can follow the action without the need for intensive background reading but it does mean the first third of the play feels a little disjointed. However once the dramatis personae are established and the various themes laid out we then get a fine story simply told under the direction of Natalie Abrahami.

The focus of the play is the relationship between Queen Anne (Emma Cunniffe) and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Romola Garai). Anne accedes to the throne on the death of her childless brother in law William III (played in barking king mode by Dave Fishley). You know he was the Dutch fella we invited over with wife Mary to keep the Catholics off the throne. He landed at Brixham, also famous as the birthplace of the Tourist. Hurrah. Here he is. Unusually without a seagull crapping on his head.

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Anyway Anne is a Stuart but the right sort as a Protestant. She is also childless despite seventeen pregnancies, a very sorry state of affairs. Her husband, Prince George of Denmark (Hywel Morgan) is a full on booby. Anne is, initially at least, physically and temperamentally, not really up to the job, so her childhood friend Lady Sarah and her circle of Whigs do their best to manipulate her to their own ends. Our Lady Sarah just happens to be the wife of John Churchill, whose rise to become leader of the Protestant forces across Europe in the War of the Spanish Succession against mighty France and Spain, (after a few false starts), brings recognition, wealth and prestige. This was a turbulent time in English (and with the Act of Union in 1707, British) politics and the play does an excellent job in drawing this out, as Anne seeks to make her mark and shifts allegiances towards the Tories led by Speaker Robert Harley (very well played by James Garnon). This was the era when Britain moved into the first division of European powers (though war proved an expensive business) as the Catholic powers were faced down and as capital was accumulated largely on the back of the slave trade (yes all you proud Brexiteers, these are the foundations your glorious country is built upon).

The tempestuous Lady Sarah gets the hump as her influence on Anne dissipates and gets properly jealous of Abigail Hill (played by Beth Park) another scheming ingenue who comes from nothing to become the Queen’s new bosom buddy. Sarah leaks some salacious correspondence but this backfires and she, her husband and her circle are debilitated (though the family has seemed to rub along ever since down the centuries – go see Bleinhem Palace is you don’t believe me).

These events are interspersed with some entertaining song and dance routines. This was after all the period which saw the rise of the popular press, in the form of pamphlets, and the emergence of political satire. The great British public, OK the emergent newly rich grasping oligarch Whigs (land alone no longer being the route to power), had put the monarchy back in its box and weren’t above any ruse to slap down the Tories, high Church and sniff out any whiff of Jacobitism.

So a fascinating time, an important monarch who ruled at a pivotal period in England’s history, and a well realised portrait of an intense relationship. Emma Cunniffe and Romola Garai both give very credible performances as Anne and Sarah and there is real passion in parts of the second half. But this is no Mary Stuart and there were times when I was hoping for a few more twists and turns. On the other hand if this is the sort of thing that floats your boat, and on balance I would say it should, then I see there are plenty of tickets left at very attractive prices, so give it a whirl.

Angels in America at the National Theatre review *****

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Angels in America: Part One Millennium Approaches and Part Two Perestroika

National Theatre, 29th July 2017

That Tony Kushner is an ambitious playwright. This will comes as no surprise to you experienced theatre lovers but, having seen this and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Hampstead Theatre last year, this has come as a revelation to this newbie.

Ostensibly Angels in America is a play about the impact of HIV/AIDS on a handful of characters beginning in mid 1980s New York and the denials that dominate their lives. Into this Mr Kushner weaves an examination of religion (specifically Mormonism and Judaism) and personal salvation, the rise of economic neo-liberalism and fall of communism, national, personal and sexual identity, the nature of responsibility and even the march of history itself – fin de siecle anyone?. The characters generally don’t do much in the way of small talk, yet all the exposition is punctured by genuinely funny humour. These people do not lack self awareness, that’s for sure.

Part One generally remains within the bounds of the naturalistic, Part Two goes into metaphysical overdrive as the curiously ineffectual angels (who themselves have been deserted by God) start to pile up. If I am honest it is all a bit nuts at times but the points that Mr Kushner wants to make more than justify the formal experimentation. And he does make a lot of points as I said. Sometimes repeatedly and with no let up in the erudition.

Now you might think the thick end of 8 hours of this, for those of us who opted for the one day experience, might turn into too much of a good thing. I have to say though that, with the exception of a few longueurs, you would be wrong. Mr Kushner’s writing creates, in me at least, a kind of heightened perception of the themes he is exploring, whilst still delivering a story, or stories more precisely, with forward momentum, and characters that you can love (or hate) despite, or perhaps because of, their intensity. As with all very. very clever people, Mr Kushner is maybe occasionally guilty of mislaying the “less is more” filter but this is a small price to pay to be dazzled on this scale. And whilst the direct impact of HIV/AIDS may have changed in public discourse in the last three decades or so, the questions the play poses directly and indirectly are still painfully relevant.

As for the production, well it is brilliant. Marianne Elliot’s direction is faultless. Meticulous precision has been applied to the combination of Ian McNeil’s set, lighting, sound, and yes, even the angels, which means the rhythm of the play is never impeded. And the cast. OMG. I don’t think I have ever seen as many high level performances as in this production. Andrew Garfield is astonishing as Prior Walter whose campness turns to courage. If anything Nathan Lane is even better as Roy Cohn, whose denial of his illness is as aggressive as his delusional politics. This two performances alone would be enough to justify the ticket price but then you have James McArdle chiming in with an impeccable portrayal of Louis Ironson, Prior’s lover who is riddled with guilt and hypocrisy. And then you have Russell Tovey as Mormon Joseph Pitt whose sexual denial has to crack, and, maybe most memorably for me, Denise Gough, who takes the part of Harper Pitt. Joseph’s pained wife and turns it into triumphant release. On and then you have Susan Brown, Amanda Lawrence and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, lighting up the stage as they cover most of the remaining parts. Collectively this is acting of the highest order.

So you can see I liked it. A lot. Like I said it does sprawl a bit, and the brain did need a few minutes of time out across the hours, but this is what theatre is all about. So if you are a theatre luvvie stick it on your bucket list. If you are a philistine run a mile.

 

The Tempest at the Barbican review ****

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The Tempest

Barbican Theatre, 27th July 2017

Now I would watch Simon Russell Beale read the telephone directory. Particular past favourites of mine include a Brechtian Galileo, a Face in the Alchemist, alongside Alex Jennings and Lesley Manville, his Stalin in Collaborators, a Timon in the Hytner production, which persuaded me this is a greatish play, and his persuasive Lear. So his return to the RSC after a couple of decades was always going to be an event, particularly in the role of everybody’s favourite grumpy polymath/magician Prospero. The Tempest is not my favourite Shakespeare though I thoroughly enjoyed the all female Phyllida Lloyd Donmar production so maybe I am slowly coming round.

Anyway this production directed by Gregory Doran had secured very good if not outstanding reviews from its Stratford run so, one way or another, it had to be seen, Initially I plumped for the cinema option figuring this might prove a better way to soak in the technology on show. However, after a mix up with tickets and me throwing a tantrum (don’t ask), I missed out. So off to the Barbican it was.

Much has been made of the digital technology conjured up by Intel and Imaginarium Studios which has been used to conjure a real-time, holographic avatar of the Ariel played by a physically graceful Mark Quartley. Well there is no doubt this is an impressive spectacle, especially when combined with the striking designs of Simon Brimson Lewis, a set with a shipwrecked hulk with overtones of whale skeleton, and the dramatic lighting of Simon Spencer. And by and large it augments rather than supplants the words of the Bard notably around the storms, imagined drownings and some very dangerous dogs. In particular the masque created for the marriage of Ferdinand (an earnest Daniel Easton) and Miranda (a surprisingly worldly Jenny Rainsford) was spell binding with some beautiful singing from Samantha Hay, Jennifer Witton and Elly Condron and landscape projections which out-garished Hockney.

But the Tempest for me is a play of subtle shifts and meanings and sometimes all the gubbins on show (including the loudish soundscape conjured up by Jeremy Dunn and Andrew Franks) did just detract a little from the magic Shakespeare conjured up through, er, the magic of words. Once you cut out the comedy interludes supplied by Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano (with Joe Dixon, Simon Trinder and James Hayes respectively suitably broad) and the perfidy of the human aristos, you are left with tales of love and forgiveness (father-daughter, Miranda/Ferdinand, Prospero and pretty much everyone else on the Island). For these lessons to, er, work their magic sometimes needs a bit of peace and quiet. Which is why the last 10 minutes or so of this production, largely SRB speaking the verse in a pool of light, turned out to be the most satisfying, and moving.

A fine addition then to the panoply of big name Tempests and well worth a view (there are plenty of tickets left for the remaining performances). But also a reminder that, at the end of it all, it s the text that matters.

 

 

Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre review

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Directors’ Festival 2017

Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Wall ***

The End of Hope *****

Albert’s Boy ***

Orange Tree Theatre, 26th, 27th, 28th July 2017

Now this really is a mighty fine idea. Take five short plays by some of Britain’s finest contemporary playwrights and hand them over to five talented young directors currently completing their MA’s at the local St Mary’s University (just down the road). Assemble fine actors and students to support the enterprise, carve out a week of rep, and charge just £7.50 a ticket to us punters. Everyone’s a winner.

Now I was only able to make 3 of the 5 offers, missing out Enda Walsh’s Misterman and Kate Tempest’s Wasted. But the three I did see where very good, and, in the case of David Ireland’s The End of Hope, outstanding.

Brad Birch has form at the Orange Tree with his The Brink being performed a couple of years ago and Black Mountain coming up. Even Stillness …. has some of the qualities I observed in the Brink. There is an anger and paranoia in the way characters react to contemporary life which is interesting if not entirely satisfying. In the Brink the lead character, teacher Nick, may have stumbled across a conspiracy or may be cracking under the stress of the job. It is funny and sharp but, once the direction of travel was established, seemed to run out of steam a bit for me. Here,  Even Stillness ….. shows a couple, Him and Her, in full on alienation at work mode, who then slowly retreat into each other at home, but whose rejection of their rubbish modern life spells another type of disaster. It is spiky and angry but in some ways lacks surprise. On the other hand it is hard to see how the direction of Hannah de Ville and the acting of Orlando James (last seen by me as a convincing Leontes in Cheek by Jowl’s Winter’s Tale) and Georgina Campbell could have been bettered.

Albert’s Boy is, I believe, the first play from the pen of James Graham. Mr Graham is now the master of the socio-political comedy – witness Ink at the Almeida (Ink at the Almeida Theatre review *****). This two hander sees Andrew Langtree’s Bucky, friend of the family and Korea vet/POW, visiting Robert Gill’s Einstein, in the US in 1953. Einstein is tortured by his involvement in the programme that led to the launching of the atomic bombs, Bucky is scarred by his recent internment. Cue an examination of the big picture political landscape of the times and smaller scale demons of our two leads. Like Mr Graham’s more mature works this has some laugh out loud lines and easy to digest learnings. yet is is a little worthy and static. Once again though I couldn’t fault cast or the direction of Kate Campbell.

Now I have to say I think The End of Hope is a terrific play. I ended up having to cancel Cypress Avenue at the Royal Court last year (bloody kids were up to something) which annoyed me immensely. And I missed Everything Between Us at the Finborough recently. That was stupid judging by this. The End of Hope takes a slightly surreal one night stand and proceeds to mercilessly skewer notions of identity, political, religious, sexual, the nature of fame, high and low culture and pretty much anything else that takes Mr Ireland’s fancy over 50 minutes or so. It is hilariously funny with twists and turns which are not at all forced. As with his other plays sectarian division in his native Northern Ireland acts as the backdrop for the satire. But this is far from geographically bound. Breathless stuff with a real chemistry between Elinor Lawless and Rufus Wright as Janet and Dermot. And hats off to director Max Elton. I suspect getting the pace of performance right here is much trickier than it looks.

So there we have. Three fine plays. Theatre alive and well in the hands of these lovely young people and an urgent need to see more of David Ireland’s plays.

Ink at the Almeida Theatre review *****

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Ink

Almeida Theatre, 24th July 2017

Recipe for a very satisfying night at the theatre.

  1. Choose your company. I spend the vast majority of my theatre going life flying solo. So it is such a pleasure to be joined by some choice chums. In this case the SO, the Blonde Bombshells, BUD and KCK. Lovely.
  2. Have a bite to eat beforehand. Now having a “pre-theatre supper”, (I f*****g loathe the concept of “supper” and all who refer to it – it is called dinner), is sailing perilously close to the limits of poncey stuckuppery as far as I am concerned. But I have to say plate of delicious comestibles at that Ottolenghi realy did hit the spot even if the price/volume interplay was very suspect. I may go again. What a toff I have become.
  3. Go to the Almeida Theatre. This is starting to get silly. As far as I can see the Almeida under Rupert Goold has not put a foot wrong in the last four years and is now, in my humble opinion, London’s best theatre. Mr Goold is blessed with Robert Icke as a wingman and can call on just about any stage acting heavyweight he fancies. And he and his team are fortunate to be well oiled by the cash of the professional and chattering classes of Islington. But what has been most impressive for me is the string of new works that have been showcased alongside the classics. As proof I give you Hamlet, Mary Stuart, Oil, They Drink it in the Congo, Richard III, Uncle Vanya, Little Eyof, Medea, Oresteia, Bakkhai, Carmen Disruption, Game, King Charles III. 1984 and American Pyscho. All great and, in many cases, outstanding works of theatre. Even the misfires have had something of value.
  4. Choose your writer, James Graham. Now it looks to me as if Mr Graham has found his groove and is now busy perfecting it. Dramatising relatively recent socio-political events brings recognition to us, the audience, which means we can ruminate on the parallels with the right now, whilst still being thoroughly entertained. Mr Graham just has the knack of picking and writing a good story. That is not as easy as it sounds. In the case of Ink he has gone one stage further than in This House for me by shining a light on the genesis of the populist tabloid, here the Sun, just at the point when maybe, the power of this particular beast is waning. The story of the first year of the Sun, following Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the title in 1969, turns out to be theatrical gold. Murdoch’s desire to take on the British establishment and “give the people what they want”. his relationship with editor Larry Lamb, Lamb’s own personal battle with Daily Mirror editor and mentor Hugh Cudlipp, the pulling together of a team of Fleet Street rejects, waifs and strays to create the new style tabloid, the shocking kidnapping and death of Muriel McKay, wife of Murdoch’s lieutenant, the provocation of Page 3: all of this is deftly and pacily explored by Mr Graham in an often acutely amusing way. The motives for recasting journalism and the press in the UK are laid bare: the consequences we know from the intervening decades. Brilliant stuff.
  5. Savour the performances. Unsurprisingly the attention of the critics has focussed on Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch. It’s another bravura performance from an actor who seems to relish “the method” as far as I can see. I thoroughly enjoyed the physicality of his Yank in the Old Vic’s Hairy Ape (which was underrated in my view) and here he captures the awkwardness of Murdoch, his prudishness, his curious accent and his “outsider” psychology perfectly. He is not the caricature demon we “liberal” types need him to be but he is the archetype of “destructive capitalism”. (As an aside I once had a breakfast meeting in Washington. Rupert Murdoch sat down alone on the table next to us. His presence dominated our meeting for the next hour. All he did was eat toast and read the paper but all eyes were on him.) However, if I were Bertie I might have fancied taking on the Lamb role instead. On the other hand Richard Coyle does such a good job there was probably no vacancy. I have seen, and I am sure will see, more virtuoso, scenery chewing, thespianism on stage this year (Lars Erdinger/Greg Hicks in Richard III, Andrew Garfield in Angels in America, Cherry Jones in the Glass Menagerie, Andrew Scott in Hamlet, Brendan Cowell in Life of Galileo, by way of example) but Mr Coyle absolutely nails this from the off. This is a character whose seems compelled to test boundaries. He carries much more of the play than I expected but, even so, this really is an ensemble piece, and that is what makes the “us against the world” dynamic so persuasive.
  6. Take your hat off to Rupert Goold as director. I could be wrong but I reckon that Mr Goold is one of those rare leaders who can control his own ego. What you see on the stage in his productions is what writers, cast, designers and all the other good folk around want to show. I am guessing he guides, he doesn’t dictate. the world needs more leaders like that. My guess is Mr Murdoch would disagree.
  7. Set, Light, Sound, Action.  It is a tabloid in 1969/1970. Activity, headlines, demarcations, flares, eyeliner, dodgy haircuts and dodgy views. You can conjure up a picture in your mind I reckon but what you actually get far surpasses this. Bunny Christie’s set is the antithesis of minimal but so perfectly captures place and time. Some of the movement and dance (yep) is very witty and the scene elucidating the production process is inspired.

All in all a tip, top piece of theatre that I defy anyone not to enjoy. It lifts you up and carries you along from the open and makes you laugh, whilst still getting a little bit vexed about how this instrument of shabby, public discourse could have become so powerful.

So if it were to pop up in a transfer, as so much of the Almeida’s work now does, and you haven’t seen it, don’t hesitate. A proper story. Popular not populist.

The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios review *

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The Philanthropist

Trafalgar Studios One, 6th July

So the Philanthropist has been and gone. A combination of a visit late in the run, the Tourist’s usual dilatoriness and a holiday meant no review until now. Probably just as well. This wasn’t great I have to say.

I think I just have to accept that where others see a sharp wit in the writing of Christopher Hampton I just see a rather tired, dated smartarsery I am afraid. I seem to remember enjoying Les Liaisons Dangereuses (play and film) all those years ago but the recent Donmar revival left me a bit cold. Same thing apples to some of his screenplay adaptions like The History Man and Atonement for example. But one is supposed to admire him so I thought I would give this a whirl.

In other contexts I am also very partial to the cast on show here notably Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal in the magnificent Friday Night Dinner and Matt Berry in his various incarnations (with IT Crowd matching FND as a family favourite chez Tourist). Here though they weren’t really up to the task I fear. Simon Bird did an excellent impression of Simon Bird but that wasn’t really what I think the part required. Matt Berry could have got away with a full on Toast performance here playing an arrogant writer, but was curiously underpowered. Tom Rosenthal was better but his performance along with the character just started to grate. Lily Cole was captivately dreadful. Only Charlotte Ritchie as Mr Bird’s put upon girlfriend really gained the measure of the piece.

A bunch of 70’s academic types and hanger ons moping about and behaving carelessly turned out not to be my cup of tea and the jokes were stilted. I am sure director, the lovely Simon Callow, had an idea of what he wanted but it didn’t seem to get through to his cast. I just didn’t care about any of them and barely laughed.

So a lesson for the tourist. when buying think text first, director second and cast last of all. And do not take a punt on novelties. And stay wary of the Trafalgar Studios which seems wedded to such novelty to pull in the audience (and full price, it ain’t cheap).

It isn’t the worst play the Tourist has seen in the last few years. That accolade goes to Jamie Lloyd’s excruciatingly bad Faustus at the Duke of York’s. I know the idea here was to get a new audience into the theatre by getting Kit Harington to flash his bum at them but we had to walk out of this halfway through.

And talking of walkouts we did the same at the Open Air Theatre’s Tale of Two Cities recently. No review as I only managed the first half but you can check out the proper reviews. Believe them. This is a dog’s breakfast where the laudable concept and over complex staging end up grinding the Dickens’s story into the dust. And whilst I pride myself on being as sweary and as confrontational as the next man the Open Air really isn’t the place to do this when you are asking families to part with their cash for a magical evening’s entertainment.