Present Laughter at the Old Vic review ****

Present Laughter

Old Vic Theatre, 24th July 2019

Ummed and ahhed about whether to see this. On the one hand it was Andrew Scott in the lead as one of theatre’s most renowned hyper-narcissists, Gary Essendine. On the other hand it was a play from the dreadful old reactionary Noel Coward, albeit one of the quartet of classic comedies of manner, alongside Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, before he became a terribly bitter sh*t.

Its problem is that it is smugly celebrating the very world and people that it purports to subvert. Of course it racks up caustic barb after knowing aside, many of which are admittedly pretty funny, all wrapped up in a well constructed, if gentle, farce, but it never really gets under the skin of its main, or supporting, characters. Which leaves me more annoyed than intrigued by the central conceit, that an actor/artist, and now just “celebrity”, needs the constant validation of others to stave off lonely despair as he/she negotiates the divide between reality and performance. Message to Gary/Noel. Just because you know you are a needy prick doesn’t make you any less of a needy prick. (Essendine, famously, is an anagram of neediness).

Still my adoration for Mr Scott won out, alongside a hunch, correct as it turned out, that director Matthew Warchus would be unable to resist having some fun making explicit the covert sexual relationships at the centre of the original play. And, in the end, I was very glad I went. Still can’t quite shake off the indignation that informs the above opinion of the snobbish, bullying Coward and his plays, but I have to admit the layers that emerge through the play really did surprise me.

Rob Howell’s set and costumes offer a striking jazzy deco period vibe, (the plays dates from 1943), with a contemporary twist, which helped enliven the somewhat cardboard supporting characters, and Mr Warchus instructed them not to hold back. Which suits the talents of Enzo Cilenti as Joe, Gary’s forthright paramour and Suzie Toase as his cuckolded wife Helen. Abdul Salis is Gary’s agent Morris Dixon, natural comic Sophie Thomson as Gary’s protective assistant Monica, Joshua Hill as stalwart valet Fred whilst rising talent Kitty Archer turns in another vivacious performance as young devotee Daphne. Though these are all a little overshadowed by Luke Thallon as super-fan and aspiring playwright Roland Maule and, especially Indira Varma as Liz, Gary’s world-weary wife. Not quite everyone is putting on a performance but Gary certainly is not alone in the attention seeking stakes. And they obviously need him as much as he needs them.

The deliberately ropey plot is never over-accelerated, although a few gags are still painfully telegraphed. And somehow the genius stage actor that is Andrew Scott managed to extract pathos and ambiguity, beyond the sexual, from Gary’s egomania. He cannot quite escape the masturbatory-squared approach that Coward takes to his stage alter-ego but he does leave you guessing as to his true feelings and the idea of Gary/Coward as some sort of mid-life, man-child, he is in his early 40s, is perspicacious. And, once again, Mr Scott manages that rare trick of projecting his performance not just to the whole audience but also to each and every one of us, (at least that’s what I felt).

So message received and understood. Though I don’t think I will ever feel pity for those who choose celebrity. If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen. And definitely don’t stick your head in the oven whilst getting your publicist elicit public sympathy.

Avalanche at the Barbican Theatre review ****

Avalanche: A Love Story

Barbican Theatre, 8th May 2019

Dear Wonderful People Who Make Theatre,

Please can you persuade Maxine Peake and Andrew Scott to come together on stage in a naturalistic two hander about a normal couple who have something extraordinary happen to them. Manchester, London or Timbuktu. I don’t care where. Subject TBD. As long as there is bucketloads of emotional pain which has to be worked through whilst stoically carrying on with their daily lives.

Yours respectfully,

The Tourist

There is nothing actually that innovative about this monologue based on Australian writer Julia Leigh’s memoir about her experience of IVF. There is no need for it. A bit of symbolism from an avalanche and a pair of imagined kids. Otherwise it charts the fractured relationship of a film-maker, her overwhelming need to conceive and the grief that follows from the failed treatments. Anna-Louise Sark’s staging, a three sided, clinical, white space which rises slowly through the 90 minute production, a table and chairs that collapse, from designer Marg Horwell, some, occasionally, overly forthright lighting and sound from Lizzie Powell and Stefan Gregory, may give a hint of art-theatre. It doesn’t really add anything though to the performance.

Which is, in the least surprising surprise since we were apprised of the fact that His Holiness is of the Roman persuasion, just brilliant. It isn’t just the fact that Maxine Peake makes the movement of face, hands and body look entirely natural, (even when awkwardly directed to shift stage positions to break up the monologue), or the easy conversational style that projects, on on one, even up to us cheapskates in the gods. It is the fact that whilst remaining entirely Maxine Peake throughout – vowels, grins, wry knowing asides, pauses, reflections, repetitions, pointing, pawing – she becomes the woman whose harrowing story she is telling. This is not, forgive me, and thankfully, a story that I can relate and yet, pretty much throughout, I was there with her.

In anyone else’s hands the slight drawbacks in the adaptation would probably have been laid bare. It is too long, you can, an hour in, practically hear the pages turning, with too much emphasis on the how and what of the journey and not enough on the why, and this is too big a space for any monologue, (and robs the end of much of its theatricality). It does though get into the joyless mechanics and desperate economics of IVF treatment, six rounds in total, and captures the loneliness of the Woman’s quest. As it happens IVF treatment played a small part in Out of Water, the new play by Zoe Cooper, on my next night’s viewing. And this was, by comparison with the other stage work I have seen prompted by this experience, the weak Genesis Inc, a resounding success. And the Fertility Fest at the Barbican, of which this was a centrepiece, deserves everyone’s praise.

To my mind the only actor who can match Maxine Peake when it comes to force of personality and stage charisma is the aforesaid Andrew Scott. As was apparent to anyone lucky enough to see Simon Stephens’s monologue Sea Wall at the Old Vic last year (or in its previous outings);

And that is the reasoning behind my plea above.

Sea Wall at the Old Vic Theatre review

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Sea Wall

Old Vic Theatre, 23rd June 2018

I might have told this story before. My memory is failing. A few years ago the SO, BD and LD went to see Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Terrific film and terrific musical. Made more terrific by the presence of Ben Wishaw and Andrew Scott in the audience just in front of us. Topping that LD got a pic of herself with them at the interval thanks to the SO’s no-nonsense lack of star-struckedness. Made our days though I was too scared to talk to them. If I had it might have gone … “I hope your Hamlet Mr Scott is as good as yours Mr Wishaw” or some equally bone-headed guff.

Anyway it turns out that Mr Scott’s Hamlet at the Almeida was even better than Mr Wishaw’s. Some achievement that. Don’t listen to those who say his style was too “conversational” or that he dumb-downed the verse for the hoi-polloi, (aided and abetted by some suspiciously “European auteur” style direction from Robert Icke). Those are the sort of snobs who would keep you all from the exquisite joy that is Shakespeare and have you all bored rigid for four hours with men in doublets and tights at the Globe.

Sea Wall was written especially for Mr Scott by Simon Stephens, who, on his day, is as fine a dramatist as any alive today. It is apparently the favourite of his play. It was commissioned by Josie Rourke in 2008 when she was AD at the Bush and has subsequently popped up in Edinburgh, Dublin and at the NT under the auspices of Paines Plough and the director here, George Perrin. It is only 30 minutes long, that was the brief, and Mr Stephens had only 3 weeks to write it. This left no time for fannying about so, after catching a glimpse of an incident whilst on holiday in France which forms the denouement of the monologue, he just got on with it. Which explains its immediacy and power I suspect.

At first there is just a hint that Mr Scott is showboating here as he breaks down the barrier between actor, character and text. Given the prices some of the audience will have paid, (not this skinflint), and the hype surrounding the play and his performance, there was a faint air of “so what” for the first few minutes. Then somewhere in the story the spell is cast so that by the end Mr Scott had, forgive the cliche, the entire packed Old Vic crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. The monologue, when perfectly realised as here, can be the most perfect form of theatre. It is just story telling after all and in this simple family tragedy Simon Stephens is able to squeeze in all of his favourite themes, science, faith, mortality, twists of fate, compassion, exploration, fatherhood, Chekhov, grief, the possibility of redemption, all in one perfectly tight bundle. Delivered by a man who, for all the world, looks like he is watching the story unfold alongside us, as observer and observed. Other actors have performed the part of Alex but at the end of the day this is Scott’s voice in the text.

There is a short film version and hopefully he will get to play it again. Meanwhile this family at least awaits his next move, TV, film or stage, with bated breath.

 

 

Hamlet at the Almeida review *****

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Hamlet

Almeida Theatre, 11th March 2017

“…. but I’ve forgotten what Hamlet is about. 

It’s about a young man called Hamlet. And a girl called Ophelia who goes mad. And a ghost. And a Queen called Gertrude who gets poisoned. And a king called Claudius who gets stabbed. And a young man called Laertes who gets killed in a duel, and an old man called Polonius who gets killed by mistake.

I remember now. Not a Bright Piece …. “

From Henrietta Sees It Through by Joyce Dennys

The SO’s unparalleled reading of first half C20 memoirs turned up the above. A perfect spoiler/summary which tickled me. Hamlet may be the greatest play that big Will ever created but for me it still has some plot development that needs a deft directorial touch as well as, obviously, a believable psychological portrait from the Prince himself. That means a logic to the pile up of corpses, a Hamlet who loves Mummy and Daddy, reasons why Gertrude might love Claudius who therefore cannot just be just a weakling or a tw*t from the off, a Polonius who isn’t a total buffoon, an Ophelia who isn’t off with the fairies, a properly p*ssed off Laertes, good reasons why Hamlet might still have mates whilst his behaviour gets ever more erratic and preferably sotto voce reference to Norway and England.

For me this Hamlet ticked all the boxes and much. much more. I can’t pretend I have seen loads of great actors do their thing here nor can I remember vast swathes of the text. You can read the proper reviews to get all of that. But I can tell you that this is, in my view, about as good as Shakespeare gets.

Casting Andrew Scott as Hamlet if I am honest, probably didn’t require a massive leap of imagination. He looks the part (still sufficiently youthful) and surely was a shoe-in to play an unhinged mind based on previous work (oh alright based on his Moriarty on the telly as that is all I really know).

But OMG as the kids might say. Does he deliver. The conversational delivery meant I could savour almost every line and hear plenty that had not previously registered. There was an inevitability to his behaviour as events unfolded reinforced by the continuous animation in his face and hands . The petulance and narcissism that I want from a Hamlet was abundant. Let’s be honest he can be an annoying little s**t.

The relationships were perfectly pitched. The archness in the scenes with the actors, with Polonius, with Horatio and with the gravedigger were spot on. And the emotional tension created in the scenes with Gertrude, Ophelia and with Claudius (a gun and a dream, maybe – brilliant). And the soliloquies were perfectly delivered (and there are some cracking notes in the programmes about the psychology around voices in the head).

Hard for me to imagine better performances as well from a tactile Juliet Stevenson (Gertrude) especially as realisation turns into self-sacrifice, Jessica Brown Findlay (Ophelia), just edge of seat stuff with the herbs (a phrase your are unlikely to hear again!), Luke Thompson (Laertes), lump in throat in the final scenes with Hamlet, and Peter Wright (Polonius) a proper loving Dad and a vital right hand man. And for me Angus Wright’s (Claudius) more declamatory delivery fitted the nature of a chap who I think is rarely plagued with self doubt unlike his step-son.

The real genius though is director Robert Icke who is at the top of his game here. That’s not to stay he is infallible. Myself and BD (who was a massive Simpsons fan when she was a littlun) didn’t get on with Mr Burns where the concept drowned the characters for me, and whilst The Red Barn at the NT looked amazing I think the story was perhaps ultimately too thin, even as it passed through the hands of David Hare and the eyes of Mr Icke, to support the promise. 1984 though was brilliant, his Mary Stuart was absorbing and, for me, his Uncle Vanya was revelatory (I have not always got on with this), but even this was surpassed by Mr Icke’s Oresteia which was magnificent with the expanded prologue setting up the moral pickles and making the intervention of the gods gripping instead of a bit bonkers.

In this Hamlet the use of video is inspired not hackneyed, in the Ghost scene, in the play close-ups and in the conclusion, all reinforcing the the themes of surveillance and tine passing. The idea of Claudius’ confession as a dream is intriguing as is Ophelia’s breakdown from a wheelchair. There is mordant comedy in the Polonius/Hamlet scene. All in all lots of bang up to date ideas but which all serve a purpose.

Love it, love it, love it. And the good news. It is transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre apparently. So no excuses now. Get a ticket.