Cyrano de Bergerac at the Playhouse Theatre review *****

Cyrano de Bergerac

Playhouse Theatre, 30th January 2020

I appreciate the utter pointlessness of me rabbiting on right now about theatre productions that have come and gone but since I am ill equipped to do anything but stay out of the way as instructed, then forgive me my indulgence. Actually I can, as maybe some of you can, by shifting a few quid in the direction of those that need it. Theatres, homeless charities, food banks and women’s refuges all need the money you are saving from staying. If you find yourself, like me, in a position of fortunate security right now this is the least you can do.

The Tourist is not a big fan of the value/comfort ratio offered at the Playhouse Theatre. Compounded with the aggressive pricing strategy pursued by the Jamie Lloyd Company and producers in the current season as they seek to hook the punters in with big name stars of the big screen. And, whilst being a big fan of his librettos for the operas of George Benjamin, I have been a little underwhelmed by recent productions of Martin Crimp’s own plays.

Still there is a reason why (I think I am right in saying this) Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is the most oft performed play in the French language, subject to many interpretations at home and abroad. And, plainly, the critics adored it. So, after a long wait, the Tourist finally secured a ticket for his favoured pitch at said Playhouse at a fair price and settled in to see what all the fuss was about.

Well if you have seen it, live or via the cinema broadcast before you know what put paid to Life As We Knew It, then you will know that the hype is to be believed. It remains just a slam dunk brilliant story but MC’s jaw dropping contemporised verse translation/adaptation, Soutra Gilmour’s stripped bare set and a magnificent cast led by a magnetic James McAvoy, have turned it into landmark theatre.

Modern dress, microphones, bare wood stage, cast always on show, minimal propping. All the art regie-theatre tropes are on display. You don’t get much to look at for your money. Not even a false nose. But what you do get is brilliant story telling which thrillingly celebrates the art of language and communication. Between characters, actors and audience. This is still supposed to be a French theatre in 1640. But there are no visual clues. Everyone is miked. With supplementary beat-box courtesy of Vaneeka Dadhria.

Of course the style, in all senses, was set to appeal to a younger than normal audience. The young adults at the performance the Tourist attended brought infectious energy which melted even this curmudgeonly heart. but the real triumph is the way that James McAvoy as proud artist/hero Cyrano, Eben Figuieredo as sincere jock/lover Christian and Anita-Joy Uwajeh as a feminist/intellectual Roxane are all simultaneously confident and vulnerable, desperate for and dismissive of, love, in a way that is both right now and timeless. This yin and yang from the central menage a trois, with the added prodding, pimping and pumping from the other characters, (notably Michele Austin as cook/poet and Tom Edden as baddie De Guiche), seeps into the rhythm of the text, alternately muscular and tender. The cast never lose sight of the story and there are, even with the threadbare visual resources, some stunning scenes, aided and abetted by Jon Clark’s lighting and the Ringham boys’ sound design, notably the classic wooing switch. But it is MC’s text that is the star of the show. Along with the amazing Mr McAvoy. Like Jamie Lloyd we all know the Scottish fella has just got it. White Teeth, Last King of Scotland, State of Play, The Ruling Class. All proof for me with no need to touch any of his Hollywood blockbusters.

Jamie Lloyd’s triumphant direction, (with a shout out to Polly Bennett’s movement), make this stylised take zip along, nothing getting in the way of poetry or character. OK so there are times when the imperative to claim immediate relevance masks the pathos, especially at the rushed conclusion, (though there were still plenty of throat lumps, oohs and aahs in my audience), but this is a still price to pay for the meaning uncovered and excitement generated by the production.

Leopoldstadt at Wyndhams Theatre review ****

Leopoldstadt

Wyndham’s Theatre, 29th January 2020

A new play from the venerable 82 year old Sir Tom Stoppard. Not our greatest living playwright. That is Caryl Churchill, but he does know his way around a text. So booked early, for early in the run and before knowing too much about it.

You will likely know by now that Sir Tom has chosen to delve into his family’s own history and his Jewish heritage for this play, which I can see would be a fitting swansong, if swansong it is. He was born in Czechoslovakia, but escaped to Britain with his family ahead of the Nazi occupation, and was educated in India and then Yorkshire. Whilst he had become aware in the 1990s of the full extent of his roots, (which his mother had chosen to shield him from), as well as the fact that many of his relatives had died in Nazi concentration camps, and he had indicated that he would likely write a play based on this history, he had been ambivalent about making it too personal.

I don’t know how much of the plot, and specifically the key events which punctuate it, are drawn from TS’s own family history, nor indeed how closely the characters resemble his own forebears, (though the character of Leo is surely autobiographical), but there is no doubting his emotional investment in this grand saga. Particularly at the end, in an epilogue which is as moving as anything you might ever see on stage.

We kick off in Vienna in 1899 at a gathering of the Merz and Jakobovicz families at Christmas (and later passover). Bullish businessman Hermann Merz (Adrian Scarborough, on his usual top form) is married to gentile Gretl (Faye Castelow), having, pragmatically, converted to her Catholicism. They have one son Jacob. Hermann’s sister Eva (Alexis Zegerman) is married to obsessive mathematician Ludwig Jakobovicz (Ed Stoppard, yes, he is) who has two sisters, Wilma (Clara Francis), married to Ernst (Aaron Neil), and Hanna (Dorothea Myer-Bennett, continuing the Tourist’s fortunate habit of seeing everything she does on stage), who is married to Kurt (Alexander Newland, who we meet later on). With their various kids, cook Poldi (Sadie Shimmin), parlour maid Hilde (Felicity Davidson), nursemaid Jana (Natalie Law) and all presided over by Grandma Emilia (Caroline Gruber). Thank goodness for the family tree in the programme which the Tourist furtively turned to early doors.

With this many characters, and to set the contextual and didactic balls rolling, and because this is what Sir Tom does best, there is a lot of serious chat going on, as we learn how these well-to-do, educated and largely assimilated Jewish families see themselves, their faith, culture and economy, at a time of great change in Europe’s still premier metropolis. And, inevitably in the first act, bucketloads of exposition. The Merz family doesn’t live in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt district but its status as the centre of Jewish life in the city looms large. The anti-semitism is subtle as well as overt, but its deep historical roots are unmistakeable. Hermann tries and fails to join the jockey club, Ludwig’s hopes of a professorship are far-fetched, and ugly truths are revealed, along with the superb Luke Thallon’s cruel Aryan officer, Fritz.

The play really gets going then after the interval, as we move first to 1924, another family gathering for a circumcision, meeting the cosmopolitan children of the four couples, and then, momentously 1938, and the grandchildren. This is the cue for high drama, for example, the forced repossession of the Merz family home, and eviction, Kristallnacht (vividly realised through Adam Cork’s brilliant sound design), the memory of Pauli (Ilan Galkoff) lost in the WWWi trenches. Then, finally to 1955, when Leo (Luke Thallon), the English emigre son of Nellie (Eleanor Wyld), daughter of Eva and Ludwig, and Nathan (Sebastian Armesto, also doubling), son of Sally (Ayve Leventis), daughter of Wilma and Ernst, are brought together by Nathan’s sister, Rosa (Jenna Augen). This, or something like it, is, I’d like to think, how Sir T first encountered his own history, and planted the seed for Leopoldstadt.

The dialogue is direct, even during the debates on, variously, identity, assimilation, prejudice, Zionism, the recurring history is familiar and there is none of the intellectual trickery that powers Sir T’s back catalogue though there is a bit of heavy lifting from a recurring cat’s cradle metaphor. The family’s beliefs in science, justice and rationality are crushed by the rise of Nazism, but it is the personal loss more than the collective that, eventually strikes home, with Hermann’s descent the most affecting. It is a slow burn mind you, and Patrick Marber’s direction is perhaps a little too respectful. Richard Hudson’s painterly design. together with Neil Austin’s lighting and Brigitte Riefenstuhl’s costumes ooze period detail, but further hinder any opportunity for many of the 26 strong cast (not including the kids) to make a distinct mark.

Still if this is to be Sir T’s last play then why shouldn’t he tell his story his way, given his immense contribution to British and World theatre across his career. At our early viewing (the SO was a more than willing accomplice) the audience was engrossed throughout, if nor utterly captivated, and I suspect many will have been grateful to have had their emotions, perhaps even more than their intellects, engaged. The story of this horror has been told in many ways before, and should continue to be told, but Sir T has found a way to tell it that, whilst not theatrically radical, is profoundly moving, as well as stuffed with learning.

I have no doubt it will be back when we reach the other side, and it is not hard to see it being repurposed for the small screen.

You Stupid Darkness! at the Southwark Playhouse review *****

You Stupid Darkness!

Southwark Playhouse, 28th January 2020

With a whimper not a bang. That’s how the world ends in Sam Steiner’s new play. Though, given where we are now, (and as many reviews of this play seem to demand), you might be forgiven for thinking our selfish species will want to engineer something more dramatic for the end of days. Except, of course, it won’t be the end of days. It will just be the end of us. An incredibly adaptable species that wasn’t half as clever as it thought it was, after a miniscule time on Earth engineered its own extinction, whilst, unforgivably, though there is nothing to forgive, taking most of the rest of the planet’s life with it.

We never know what exactly what is going on outside the room in which our four volunteers, Frances, Angie, Joey and Angie, come every Tuesday night to Brightline to offer comfort to strangers, Samaritans style, on the phone. But it isn’t good, the weather is awful, infrastructure is failing and the team turn up in gas masks. Everything is plainly not going to be OK, keeping calm and carrying on is the default, not the resolute, choice. The phones may still be working, donuts (and this would matter to me) are still on sale, daily routines are still being followed, but, if you are familiar with the analogy, the water temperature is increasing and the frog is being boiled.

Turns out that our four characters each face their own personal misfortunes and, despite their temperamental differences, turn to each other, as well as their callers, for solace. Frances (Jenni Maitland) leads the team, is the eternal optimist, dispensing management mumbo-jumbo, but, pregnant in an increasingly sterile world, petrified at what the future holds for her unborn child. Tense Joey (Andrew Finnigan) is wise beyond his years, Jon (Andy Rush), the fatalistic foil to Frances’s buoyancy, is trapped in a failing relationship and fragile Angie (some scene stealing from Lydia Larsen, until she exits for much of the second half, we don’t find out why), empathises with callers by opening up herself.

Sam Steiner wisely forces no grand narrative or formal experiment on his play. There is not much in the way of plot. Nothing very dramatic happens. There is no great resolution or even much of an ending beyond the backers of the helpline pulling their funding. The comedy, and pathos, flows naturally from the conversation. Amy Jane Cook’s set is similarly low-key. Lights turn off. Kettles fuse. Posters fall off walls. Paintwork is peeling. Dominic Kennedy’s sound design also limits gesture and director James Grieve is unafraid of the pause. This unhurried approach pays dividends though means that the energy of the production, like the lights (Peter Small), occasionally dips, and it wasn’t to everyone’s taste on a less than half full Tuesday matinee but it suited me (and judging by the laughter a handful of others). And, if as I suspect, Mr Steiner’s aim was to find optimism in the bleak mundane, he indutiably succeeded.

I now wish I has seen Sam Steiner’s last play, also realised through Paines Plough, King Kanye about a white woman who wakes up one day to discover she is Kanye West, and, prior to that, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, in which the conceit is that language itself is rationed. I an a sucker for concept and imagination and Mr Steiner seems to have the gift. And he can right dialogue to match. I will watch his future career with interest.

The Sugar Syndrome at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

The Sugar Syndrome

Orange Tree Theatre, 27th January 2020

With last year’s A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic, The Effect from 2012, (about to be revived at the fancy newish Boulevard), and ENRON from 2010, as well as Secret Diary of a Cal Girl and, most recently, the utterly brilliant Succession, Lucy Prebble has desrevedly become one of our most feted writers for stage and screen. The Sugar Syndrome dates from 2003 and was her first full length play, winning awards and getting an airing at the Royal Court directed by one Marianne Elliott, who has similarly gone on to bigger and better things.

It may not be a perfect play, the two central characters, 17 year old Dani, who is has left hospital after treatment for an eating disorder, and Tim, in his thirties, and being monitored after a spell in prison for sex offences, are exaggerated, and defined largely by their behaviours. Their meeting, after Dani poses as a young boy in a chat room, and subsequent friendship, with Dani seeking psychological equivalence and Tim rapidly opening up, is uncomfortable and doesn’t quite ring true. On the other hand it does allow Ms Prebble to explore questions around on-line personae, (well before many others – this was still the MySpace era with Zuckerberg only just about to kick off at Harvard), addiction, self-harm, paedophilia and relationship, and her extraordinary ear for memorable dialogue is as plain here as it is in the later texts.

Debutante Jessica Rhodes goes all in with Dani, a fearless, physically expressive performance. Dani’s worldly-wise exterior is paper-thin, whereas John Hollingworth is asked to hold back in his portrayal of the guilt-ridden Tim. We will see Jessica Rhodes again soon of that I have no doubt. Alexandra Gilbreath is Jan, Dani’s Mum, who truly doesn’t understand her, and Ali Barouti is Lewis, the older boyfriend that Dani also meets on-line and who she strings along, and whose jealously catalyses the disturbing, if not surprising, conclusion. Oscar Toeman’s direction, alongside Rebecca Brower’s set and Elliott Griggs’s lighting design, creates a sharp delineation between the on-line and real worlds. This, and the performances, help to focus Ms Prebble’s slightly over-plotted narrative.

Even it’s faults, this is still an arresting play for a 22 year old to have written and I was a little surprised to see that the OT could claim is as the first major revival.

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.

As You Like It at the Barbican Theatre review ***

As You Like It

Barbican Theatre, 15th January 2020

As You Like It? Not really like this. Mind you I have yet to see a production of the play that really bowled me over. The NT production from 2016 directed by Polly Findlay looked great, office chairs becoming the Forest of Arden, and reminded us of the immense talent of Rosalie Craig and Patsy Ferran, but didn’t quite do it for me and I have a vague recollection of a previous RSC outing with Niamh Cusack as Rosalind and David Tennant as Touchstone. So maybe it is the play that doesn’t quite persuade.

I get that Will’s exploration of gender roles, sexuality and the rules of attraction still intrigues and resonates. And I get that, as a paean to the joy of love, and specifically the slippery notion of “love at first sight” there isn’t much better in the Shakespeare, or any other, canon. And it has a couple of pukka roles for women. As a generally miserable f*cker I can’t help but be attracted to eeyore Jaques and there are plenty of laughs, though they don’t always land from the lips of the sketchier supporting characters and some are just too knowing. What I don’t really buy is the whole pastoral, simpler life vibe, the magical forest is more convincing in AMND, and, absent Rosalind and Celia, I have never been convinced by many of the relationships, courtly and common, of which there are too many to really round out character. The banishments, and reconciliations, of Fred and Duke Senior, and the du Bois boys (here Leo Wan and Aaron Thiara), isn’t properly explained or resolved. The songs are a bit ropey. The prose and verse inversion and switching can be distracting and adds to the bitty, “a string of chance encounters”, quality of the play.

There are however plenty of other WS plays where similar criticisms might be levelled. But plot, character, language, message and spectacle, or some combination thereof normally finds a way to lift you up and into the world of breathless, nothing else matters, concentration that is the magic of the Bard. So maybe as I say I just need the right production of AYLI.

Here Kimberley Sykes, the brains behind the RSC Dido from 2017 which the Tourist annoyingly overlooked, has offered up a timeless Arden, supported by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design, which focuses on the key connections, between the excellent Lucy Phelps’s confident Rosalind, her forthright bessie coz Sophie Khan Levy and a gentle, though ardent, Orlando in the form of David Ajao. Sophie Stanton, as a detached, almost inert, female Jaques, was polished, and Sandy Grierson, once again, stood out with his grotesquely camp Touchstone.. A whole bunch of gender switching for the other roles left the characters even less defined than normal, and, whilst it was not difficult for an actor of Antony Byrne’s quality to pull off the roles of both Dukes, I am not sure I got the point in a play already stuffed with mistaken identities.

There were a lot of nice visual touches, but there were also times when the cast seemed to be keen to move on to the next scene, lines a bit too hurried, and some of the blocking felt a little unconnected on the roomy Barbican stage. And then there was the lighting, designed, as were the costumes, by Bretta Gerecke, which was often the wrong side of insistent. And then there was the audience participation. And a giant puppet of Hymen, god of marriage, looming over Lucy Phelps as she delivers her, slightly desperate, epilogue at the end.

Measure for Measure at the Barbican Theatre review ****

Measure for Measure

Barbican Theatre, 8th January 2020

I like Measure for Measure. I find the weird cocktail of morality play and satirical “comedy” fascinating. No one comes out of it well, not even the ostensibly virtuous Isabella who goes into bat to save brother Claudio from death, but is prepared to sign off on a pretty dodgy deal to further this aim. The stench of corruption infects even the pure. This makes it a very “modern” play I guess, which is why it is getting multiple airings, with much to say, in the right hands, about the complexities of power and desire. Not quite at the top of Will’s oeuvre but certainly in the top ten. Which, for your edification, I set out below.

  1. Othello
  2. Hamlet
  3. Julius Caesar
  4. Much Ado About Nothing
  5. Richard III
  6. Coriolanus
  7. Henry VI, Part I, II, III
  8. Richard II
  9. Measure for Measure
  10. Pericles

What no Lear? Or Dream? Or Romeo and Juliet? Or Tempest? Or Twelfth Night? And Coriolanus included? And, are you mad mate, also Pericles? Well yes I like the latter’s daft fantasy travelogue, even those bits which stem from the unsubtle hand of George Wilkins, and Coriolanus strikes me as the very model of classical tragic hero, not prone to bouts of soul sharing pace Lear, Macbeth or your boy Hamlet. And the list shows pretty clearly that I like history plays. Power, politics, virtue, honour, social as well as individual psychology, the ruler and the ruled, corruption, narcissism, jealousy. These are the things that interest me. The dark side of human nature that Will explored forensically and which make many of these plays relevant to our, or any other, time. Don’t worry though. I am not a weirdo. Much Ado About Nothing is in there.

Of course much depends on the productions I have seen and I think I have been blessed in recent years in the history and “Roman” play departments in particular. Maybe one day I will see a Macbeth or Lear that truly persuades. That’s the thing with Shakespeare. Ultimately malleable, such that creatives and cast can usually find something, language, message, narrative, character, spectacle, in which to delight and illuminate.

As here. Gregory Doran is probably the most reliable Shakespearean director of our time, useful when you are the big cheese at the RSC. Maybe not the most spectacular of interpreters but always clear in purpose and execution. No gimmickry with this, which I think is his first stab at MFM, unless you count setting the play in fin de siecle Vienna, a point in the city’s history when virtue and corruption, intellect and expedience, reached there apogee, and, arguably laid the ground for what followed, good and bad, very bad, in much of the Western world through the first half of the C20. It is almost as if big Will, with his fictional late C16 fictional Vienna could see what the real city would become three centuries later. (I gather this connection has been made in previous productions).

Otherwise GD, and designer Stephen Brimson Lewis using the set structure common to the season’s productions of As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew, with added monochrome projections as well as 1900s period costume, don’t muck about with text or cast. Paul Englishby’s score echoes with waltz. Escalus, in the hands of Claire Price, is re-gendered, as is the Provost (very effectively by Amanda Harris), but then again Mistress Overdone is, campily, handed to Graeme Brookes. But there is no wholesale gender politics reinterpretation here. And the text is, I think, complete so that said Overdone, Pompey (David Ajao versed with Afro-Caribbean sonority), Elbow (Michael Patrick) and the major, (Joseph Arkley especially as supercilious Lucio), and minor fops and fop-esses, all get their due, though the wordplay comedy requires our close attention.

RSC veteran Antony Byrne unsurprisingly nails the Duke/Friar, a man convinced of his own righteousness as he is blind to the flaws in his exercise of power, James Cooney is a quietly desperate Claudio and Lucy Phelps excels as the virtuous novice, at least until the scheme to uncover Angelo’s hypocrisy is set in motion, Isabella. But the whole is held in place by a marvellous performance by Sandy Grierson as said self-scourging Angelo, who really gets to the heart of said Angelo’s conflicted nature. Or is he, as here, not really quite as conflicted as he makes out, revelling in the opportunity to root out Vienna’s impurity whilst lusting after the eloquent nun. The ghost of an approving Freud was probably sitting in the gods.

Mr Grierson stood out in Jude Christian patchy OthelloMacbeth at the Lyric, Pity at the Royal Court and in As You Like It (of which more to come) in this RSC season but, unfortunately, I have missed him in the other RSC roles he has played in recent years, and on various stages in his native Scotland. I suggest you ensure you see him next time he treads any accessible boards.

The trick in MFM, assuming no re-interpretation, is having the two main characters in Isabella and Angelo both repelled by sex, but also, somehow, fascinated by the idea of desire, which drives the pivotal argument scenes between them. They are both, literally in joint prayer, holier than thou, at least until Angelo cracks. GD’s clear headed direction, and Lucy Phelps’s and Sandy Grierson’s delivery of the text, expertly unfolds the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. And there is no hiding from the fact that Angelo, and, through his casual “proposal” at the end, the Duke, even maybe against his preference, are choosing to be rapists.

Lots of detail, well thought through, ambiguity and double binds not brushed away. This is not a problem play. The problem, as ever, is us humans. If you want a contemporary feel-gooder with a happy ending go see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.