Albion at the Almeida Theatre review ****

albion_new_1470x690

Albion

Almeida Theatre, 21st October 2017

Now we all know Mike Bartlett is a great writer. If you don’t know his stage work then, if you love your telly in the UK, you will likely have come across his mini-series Doctor Foster. So you will know that he can write a totally gripping story and that he is not averse in taking liberties with plot construction in order to generate a few outrageous WTF moments. Now it helps that this series was blessed with some top-drawer acting talent in Suranne Jones, (up next in a revival of Frozen alongside Jason Watkins and Nina Sosanya at Theatre Royal Haymarket in what looks like casting made in heaven), the chameleonic Bertie Carvel (I would watch anything he does), Adam James (ditto and who is a Mike Bartlett veteran) and the gifted Victoria Hamilton.

And it is Ms Hamilton who takes the leading role of Audrey Walters in Albion. She is, quite simply, brilliant. I will get to the play shortly but just let me wax lyrical about Victoria Hamilton for a bit. Her Audrey is sharp, snappy, curt, brusque, tactless. A seemingly detached mother. A wife who takes her (second) husband for granted. A friend who has no interest in the life of her oldest chum. An alpha businesswoman. Yet she is also very funny, and, as we increasingly find out, vulnerable. At the heart of Mr Bartlett’s rich text it seems that Audrey, in all her contradiction, is all of us, or more specifically, is this country, whatever it might be. I guess the clue was always in the title but Albion is an allegory which takes a substantial domestic family drama as the mechanism to explore issues of national identity, place and heritage. The Brexit convulsions ooze out of the very earth, of which there is plenty on stage, though the accursed word is never mentioned.

It is a bloody marvellous role and an equally marvellous performance. You may have seen Ms Hamilton in other roles on the telly, maybe in costume dramas and the like, and I envy you if you have seen her on the stage, for she is an infrequent board-treader. Her stage reputation is immense though. I can now see why. I have no right to ask, as someone who sits around on his lardy arse most days, but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE Victoria, come back to the stage soon when this one is over. Mind you if this doesn’t get a West End transfer, I’ll be gobsmacked (though I can see some logistical challenges).

Panegyric over. What about the play? Our Audrey has left her successful “home-stuff” business in the hands of the minions. She has bought a pile she knew from childhood in rural Oxfordshire. and left London behind. It is the garden that matters to her though. It had been created by a certain Mr Weatherbury and was of immense national importance. It has gone to rack and ruin. Audrey wants to sink some of cash into restoring it to its former glory (see where we are going ….), and create a memorial to the dead of the Great War, and, we quickly learn, her son James, who was pointlessly killed in one of the recent wars. With her come her browbeaten, though wryly optimistic, husband Paul (a spot on Nicholas Rowe) and self-absorbed, millenial daughter Zara (an anxious Charlotte Hope) who wants to write and would rather be in London. Audrey inherits a couple of retainers in husband/gardener and wife/housekeeper Matthew (Christopher Fairbank, hard to imagine anyone else better suited to the part) and Cheryl (Margot Leicester, who shows perfect comic timing) but they are getting on a bit so Audrey, somewhat tactlessly, recruits ambitious Polish cleaning entrepreneur Krystyna (Edyta Budnik), and the rather enigmatic local boy Gabriel (a compelling Luke Thallon) to help . Our cast is completed by Anna (Vinette Robinson, who convinces in what is a tricky role), who is James’s grieving girlfriend, Katherine Sanchez (Helen Schlesinger), very successful writer, best friend of Audrey since university and overt “remainer”, and conservative neighbour, Edward (Nigel Betts).

No commentary on what happens next. I insist you see for yourself. There are though some moments of very high drama as the tensions between the characters unfold. Some of these scenes push us to the edge of credulity but, as with Mr Bartlett’s other work, he gets away with it because it is so damnably thrilling. 

Rupert Goold’s direction doesn’t stand in the way of any of this, indeed positively encourages it, and it gives his lighting (Neil Austin), sound (Gregory Clarke) and movement (Rebecca Frecknall) colleagues room to have some real fun. All the action is set in the red garden “room” of Weatherbury’s original design. Miriam Buether’s “thrust” forward design is a cracker. A raised oval lawn with trusty oak tree and seat at the back and with a bed all around which is transformed halfway through. This England indeed. 

If the set up above sounds like a certain Mr Anton Chekhov you’d be right. It unashamedly has Cherry Orchard crawling all over it, and, greedy bugger that he is, he even takes a few feathers out of The Seagull. Why not though? Chekhov being the perfect template for showcasing the intersection of the personal and the political, the delineation of class, the weight of history and the vice of nostalgia. The garden itself is a quintessential metaphor for change. We English have always been good at gardens and don’t we just love ’em. Chekhov meshes comedy, tragedy and banality whilst hurling in a few bombshells. Mr Bartlett does the same.

Into this set-up then is layered a whole series of perspectives of what “we”, have been, are now, and, possibly, are going to be, now “we” have taken this unprecedented step. The short answer, if you were to ask me, is that “we” have been monumentally stupid. Mr Bartlett, as you might expect, is rather less dogmatic, and offers ambiguity (and indeed his greatest nod to Chekhov), at the end. He reminds us that even dear old Blighty is regularly convulsed by clashes between those who welcome the future, and those who cling to the past. Because, in some way or other, we all embrace this dichotomy.

The text swirls with meaning. Perhaps a little too much. This is what holds me back from a full-on JFG 5* review. Direction, staging, performances – all tip top. Garden as metaphor, check. Chekhov as inspiration, check. Formal structure, check. Narrative arc, check. Plot and characters, check. Ideas and meaning, a qualified check. Not the subject, no way, nothing right now more important could appear on a London stage. Just that maybe a few of the threads can could have been pulled a little more tightly together.

Minor criticism. This is still a hefty slab of theatre which captures the zeitgeist. Maybe not quite as immediately remarkable as the last combination of Mike Bartlett and Rupert Goold at this very venue, King Charles III. But it may well turn out to have even greater resonance as, brace yourselves, the impact of this Brexit caper has only just begun.

 

The Cherry Orchard at Milton Court Theatre review ***

cherry_orchard_image_only

The Cherry Orchard

Milton Court Theatre, 17th October 2017

I have remarked before on the attractions of the Guildhall School final year productions. Lovely venue, clear interpretations which eschew directorial licence, and the chance to see some potential future stars of stage and screen.

I must say these students are an extraordinarily attractive bunch. I guess an acting factory isn’t that interested in churning out fat uglies like yours truly. Shame since people are a diverse lot. As our leading British thespians bear witness too. This also highlights the other caveat which I would raise about these productions. Obviously if everyone on stage is in their twenties those tasked with playing the more mature characters are presented with a challenge that the age appropriate characters are spared. I have to say though that overall, the entire cast performed admirably, especially in the second half, though for me the standout performances came from Georgina Beedle as Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya and Mhairi Gayer as Anya.

The Chekhovian symphony always takes a little time to build as we embrace the characters, both in terms of their individual psychologies, and what they stand for in pre-Revolution Russian society. Director Christian Burgess let each of the actors find their voices without rushing things, which softened some of the slightly uneven casting. This was Tom Stoppard’s translation. Since Chekhov pervades a great deal of his own work it is no surprise that it hits the spot. Any playwright worth his or her salt will take a shot at adapting Chekhov but some are more sympathetic than others. This production (designed by Polly Sullivan) was as historically specific as it is possible to get – ushankas, birch trees, even a samovar I think. A complete contrast to the current Sherman Theatre interpretation from Gary Owen and Rachel O’Riordan which sounds terrific. I see too that Mike Bartlett is not averse to infusing his latest (great) play Albion with the spirit of the Cherry Orchard, both directly in terms of plot and also through the character of Audrey Walters, (Victoria Hamilton turns in one of the best performances of the year – just see it).

For of course there are always plenty of themes in Chekhov’s plays that resonate with today’s world. That is generally because there is just a lot in Chekhov’s plays full stop. Regret about an imagined past is a powerful driver of society in the present and that applies throughout human written history (I may have made that up but you get the point). These regrets and disappointments are played out through the personal, and always with a wry humour in the background.

Overall then a fine production. Not the best you will ever see, but that is unsurprising. And the two actors I mention above have a bright future ahead of them. Mind you, what do I know.

The Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

cw-15859-medium

The Seagull

Lyric Hammersmith, 9th October 2017

Right where I come from seagulls are a bloody menace. There are times when I feel the same way about Chekhov. You sit there thinking all his people are self-indulgent, lovelorn whingers who just need to lighten up and get a grip. But slowly, or more rapidly if it is class production, the lines pile up, you begin to understand and care about the characters, and the unsettling mix of everyday tragedy and comedy wields its magic. Life probably is a series of frustrations and missed expectations, which can sometimes get out of hand. When an audience collectively connects with one of AC’s characters mid-monologue it is one of theatre’s greatest pleasures. But this “theatre of mood” isn’t always the easiest of drama to pull off so I get why some people approach our Anton with trepidation.

I always think of AC’s four “great” plays as a sort of theme, more accurately themes, and variations. An impoverished landowner, the beautiful, and sometimes ageing woman, maybe an actress, who returns, and is constantly seeking validation, maybe a matriarchal dame, a young idealist/artist head over heels in love, the frustrated sibling stuck in the country, the young innocent woman (one or both parents lost to her) in love with the wrong bloke, a successful artist/writer/academic looking back to his youth, a discontented schoolteacher, maybe cuckolded, a wise doctor, a faithful retainer, soldiers of various rank, various lippy servants. You can mix them all up and they vary in each play, and Three Sisters deviates a fair bit, but these egotistical archetypes of Russian society populate the plays.

We are normally a long way from the city, to the frustration of all and sundry, and money, getting it and keeping it, is a big issue. Always bubbling away in the background is the ossified nature of the Russian society and economy at the time and the fact that this could not continue. The disparities of wealth and opportunity between AC’s characters is acute, remember these are provincial bourgeoisie so not the very richest, and serfs are generally absent or incidental. The life of the mind, and therefore some riffing on the nature of life and art (and specifically the theatre in The Seagull), will usually get worked over by AC. And, of course, love, romantic and familial, permeates the whole.

And that gun, real or metaphorical.

Back to this Seagull. You may have guessed from the above that I don’t like my Chekhov to shift too far from the socio-economic backdrop against which it was written. That doesn’t mean I need naturalistic sets and costumes. Just that the class structure should be articulated and the sense of place palpable. AC was a father of naturalism, and the plays to me are more about theme, character and rhythm than plot or spectacle. In this production, director Sean Holmes and designer Hyemi Shin have opted to shake it up a bit visually which I think de-emphasies the context I describe above,

I also found the performances a little variable in tone which meant that the whole took a bit longer to get going than normal. This is definitely not the fault of Simon Stephens new adaption which I thought was terrific. It just seemed to me that the actors approached the characters in slightly different ways, so that the multiplicity of love triangles was a little veiled at first. However after our poor seagull puts in his appearance things started to coalesce.

Nicholas Gleaves’s Boris started off in slightly diffident fashion but once he got into the monologues lamenting the fate of the writer, and the prison of the creative impulse, he found his stride. Lesley Sharp’s self-obsessed Irina, unsurprisingly was on the money from the off. Brian Vernel’s Konstantin was initially more petulant than idealist, and I wasn’t entirely persuaded by his passion for Nina, but his final scenes were very persuasive. I have seen more guileless Nina’s than Adelayo Adedayo’s, but that made the scenes with Boris more tenable. Paul Higgins’s Hugo and Nicholas Tennant’s Peter were striking but the other “minor” characters seemed a little less vivid than in other productions.

Now I hasten to say that once I had adjusted to the shape of the production it did the business, such that by Acts 3 and 4 I was firmly in the Chekhovian zone. If you fancy a Chekhov fix then this is certainly one to see. I just prefer my Chekhov to be a little more obviously rooted in its time and place, and for all the instruments in Chekhov’s orchestra to be in the same key if that makes sense. The version of The Seagull offered up at the NT last year, as part of the Chichester Young Chekhov trilogy, was certainly in the groove, and I also preferred the one served up at the Open Air Theatre a couple of years ago. Mind you the performance I attended there was interrupted by the noise from a party at the US ambassador’s gaff next door. I could just about forgive the near hour long break in my entertainment but not the fact that the Yanks had chosen Duran Duran to colour theirs. Appalling taste.

BTW. I remember seeing Duran Duran in the early 80s. Backcombed hair and full on make-up. Me that is. Meant I ditched the specs to preserve my illusion of New Romantic glamour. Which then meant I couldn’t see a thing. Which then meant there was nothing to detract from the music. Purgatory.

Second BTW. Has anyone else noticed the preponderance of Lesser and Greater Black Backed Gulls popping up all over London. Herring and Black Headed Gulls are ten a penny but these big b*ggers shouldn’t be here should they? Maybe Hitchcock was on to something in The Birds. Other than fawning over Tippi Hedren of course.

Third BTW. Talking of Hitchcock and Ms Hedren I see there are still a fair few tickets fat the ENO for Nico Muhly’s new opera Marnie based on the Winston Graham book which Hitchcock committed to film. I think this will be a belter. And I hope the new ENO season can pull in the punters and get the haters off their backs.