Switzerland at the Ambassadors Theatre review **

Switzerland

Ambassador’s Theatre, 16th November 2018

A couple of weeks prior to Switzerland the Tourist took in another play by Joanna Murray-Smith, Honour, at the Park Theatre. A very fine cast and a sharp enough dissection of a marriage broken by the cliche of the husband leaving for a younger woman, but alarmingly contrived, and borderline pretentious.

Still Switzerland has a sound reputation and the reviews for this Theatre Royal Bath production were pretty strong. And the SO is a massive fan of the talented Tom Ripley, especially in Anthony Minghella’s cinematic version (as opposed to Rene Clement’s earlier Plein Soleil). So a play which pitched the famously cantankerous Patricia Highsmith, author most famously of the Ripley novels, holed up in the mountains, and a fresh-faced flunkey from her American publisher, looked to be right up our strasse. It wasn’t difficult to guess that the young man would likely take on the attributes of Ms Highsmith’s sophisticated sociopath but even so we were intrigued by the premise.

Metaphysical conflation of an author and their most famous creation may not be entirely original but it should be the entry point into an illuminating and powerful drama. Switzerland started off well enough. William Dudley’s set delivered the lofty interior of a Swiss chalet, complete with distant mountain views and Ms Highsmith’s alarming antique armoury on the walls. The lighting of Chris Davey and sound of Mick Pool both got with the thriller project. A hint of Sleuth and especially Deathtrap, pervaded the stage, and, as it happens, the plot. (BTW both of these are better plays/films – in the case of Sleuth in either cinematic version). Phyllis Logan as Patricia Highsmith certainly looked and sounded the part: a lifetime of booze, fags and isolation leaving her character hoarse and suspicious. Callum Findlay, as the visitor Edward, had enough of the wide-eyed, naif superfan to persuade us that she would have let him stay. There’s a bit of a gear crunch as the irascible Highsmith is then persuaded by Edward to drum up a new Ripley plot, but so be it. 

However, slowly but surely the suspense then starts to drain out of the Ms Murray-Smith’s text. She piles up the biographical details of PH’s ghastly childhood (let’s just say she and her Mummy didn’t get on), adult misanthropy and overt racism, alcoholism, depression, illness, sexuality. Maybe she was insecure and damaged, particularly by the way her talent was dismissed because of the “genre” she chose to work in, and behaved this way for effect, or maybe she was just a nasty piece of work. The play doesn’t delve too deep. The attempt to turn Edward into a vision of Tom with a dapper pressed suit (out of a rucksack no less) and a whisky tumbler in hand is unconvincing. Tom Ripley is undoubtedly one of the C20’s greatest existential (anti-) heroes, up there with Mersault, Antoine Roquentin, Raskolnikov, Patrick Bateman, Rick Deckard, Port Moresby, Gregor Samsa and those two tramps. He is well-mannered, cultured, intelligent but also a narcissistic serial killer, a con-man whose sexuality is unresolved. He literally gets away with murder. What’s not to like? That is the whole point. We can’t help liking him. 

There is not enough opportunity for Calum Findlay to get anywhere close to Ripley though. After a while it begins to feel that all we are getting is Patricia Highsmith’s Wiki page and some quick notes from the 1999 film. I was hoping for and expecting some shift in the direction of the play, not a twist as such, but some leap that took the story beyond prosopography (yep it is a word, look it up, I am trying to find the moment when I can drop it into a casual conversation). It never came. The alter-ego theory was laid out but never explored. So I ended up underwhelmed as did the SO, for broadly similar reasons. For a play about a writer whose books are artfully dramatic this seemed a shame. 

This was even more of a surprise given director Lucy Bailey’s recent pedigree. She directed the two very recent successful Agatha Christie adaptations, Lover From A Stranger and Witness For The Prosecution. The Tourist hasn’t seen either (yet) but, being a high falutin’ sort of fellow he did see Cave, Tansy Davies’s latest opera at the Printworks, which she directed and which was terrific (if you like that sort of thing – which I do). She also has a string of feted RSC Shakespeare to her credit.

So it is, with regret as Sir Alan would have it, that I have to report that Switzerland was a disappointment as a play if not in its execution. In contrast to its predecessor here at the charmingly intimate Ambassadors, Foxfinder which was a fine play let down by the realisation of the revival. 

Touching the Void at Bristol Old Vic review *****

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Touching the Void

Bristol Old Vic, 22nd September 2018

The Tourist had a terrific visit to Bristol recently. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s marvellous Henry V (Henry V at the Tobacco Factory Bristol review *****), the Georgian House, another fine cathedral ticked off, an accidental preview of the refurbished space at the Old Vic and then this, a reminder of just how powerful theatre can be when filtered through the imaginations of first, its creators, and then second, us the audience.

Mind you mountaineer Joe Simpson’s extraordinary, mythic, true-life story of survival after being left for dead on Suila Grande in the Peruvian Andes by his climbing parter Simon Yates could hardly be more dramatic. You may well know it from Mr Simpson’s own mesmerising account in his 1988 book, Touching the Void, or from the feted docudrama from 2003 directed by Kevin MacDonald, with Brendan Mackey, Nicholas Aaron and Ollie Ryall. I also recall a separate TV documentary but I may be getting confused. If you don’t know the story I am not about reveal details here: that would be vexatious. Whilst the Old Vic run is over the production will tour to the joint producing houses of the Royal and Derngate Northampton and Royal Lyceum Edinburgh, and then on to Hong Kong, Perth and Inverness. I would be stunned if it doesn’t get further run-outs thereafter.

For this is brilliant theatre. I can see why some might of thought it a bit nuts to stage it, not only because of the prior, superb treatments, but also because of its subject. How to bring the mountain to the Old Vic deep proscenium? This is after all the oldest continually operating theatre in the English speaking world built in 1764. The Theatre Royal auditorium interior is a thing of beauty in paint and wood, matched only by the Theatre des Bouffes de Nord in Paris IMHO. The new public space based on my quick peek is only going to add to its architectural wonder.

So what have Tom Morris, the AD of BOV and director here, and designer Ti Green, opted to show us here? Well a few tables, chairs and a sign to symbolise a pub in Scotland and a bar in Switzerland. And an immense rotating metal frame, a skein filled with opaque white paper which gradually gets perforated. All of which turn into mountain ranges. Not literally. Don’t be silly. But add in climbing gear, tents, a video backdrop, superb lighting and composition/sound courtesy of Chris Davey and Jon Nicholls and, I swear, we are transported. It is one of the best realisations I have ever seen in a theatre.

However, even with craft of this imagination, that would still not be enough. Which is where the writer David Greig, the AD of the Royal Lyceum, adds his genius. Mr Greig’s original work for Traverse, NT Scotland and Paines Plough is testament to his skill but his adaptions may just be even better. I can vouch for The Suppliant Women which came to the Young Vic last year (The Suppliant Women at the Young Vic review ****), Creditors, Tintin in Tibet, and trustees who rate his contributions to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It is not just the ability to think through how the story can be converted into this thrilling visual spectacle, to show us where and how this happened, but also how to recast the main characters to offer us a insight into why this happened. This is after all a first person narrative where the main character is largely alone.

David Greig’s masterstroke is to incorporate Joe Simpson’s older sister, Sarah, into the narrative. (Sarah is a constant, goading presence in Joe Simpson’s autobiography The Game of Ghosts. Poignantly she died a couple of years ago.). At the outset she is angry at what seems to be Joe’s pointless sacrifice, we rewind to see her meeting Simon with Joe and being bitten herself by the climbing bug. And it is Sarah who is cajoling Joe, the spirit in his fractured mind, during the darkest hours of his escape. Monologue is turned into internal, and then here, external dialogue Add to this the contrast offered by the wry commentary from Richard, the hippyish Geordie who is recruited early on to man the base camp during the “alpine style” assault on Suila Grande.

Patrick McNamee, maybe because of, rather than in spite of, a couple of musical interludes and some remarkably insensitive dialogue, I guess this was Richard, is on top form and Fiona Hampton as the fierce, bolshie, brother-loving, Sarah is outstanding. Edward Hayter has to be more subtle to capture the more taciturn Simon, especially when he is forced to make his momentous decision and the anguish which follows. This role is a huge ask physically, though it pales a little beside that of Josh Williams as Joe. I don’t recall having seen an actor have to commit so much energy to a performance. Hanging off ropes, hopping across rocks, flying down an icy slope. Frostbitten, dehydrated, hypothermic, He really looked like he was knackered and in agony, partly I reckon because he probably was! On top of this he also has to convey the mental agonies that Joe faced in his ordeal as well as offering us, like Edward Hayter’s Simon, some idea of what drives these seemingly unremarkable blokes to take on such challenges. These fellas it seems have a rather different, more direct and maybe more rational, take on risk than the likes of you or I it seems.

So we have humour, suspense, tension, horror, exposition, explanation, psychological insight, metaphor, tricks of perspective and memory, energy, physicality, music (Boney M can be a motivator), Blimey it even feels really cold and dark at times. And if you have ever wondered what a movement director gets paid for, Sasha Milavic Davies (as in the Suppliant Women mentioned above) shows you, and then some.

This is theatre at its inventive best. It gets to the heart of the “what would I have done” question. I do hope many more people get to see it. If you are one of the lucky people close by to the theatres mentioned above do not hesitate and drag as many of your friends along as you can. I guarantee they will not be disappointed. It is hard to think of anything more gripping than a story of someone who “comes back from the dead”. To provoke our imagination into being there with him by using his imagination to create some-one being there with him is just exceptional.

Nightfall at the Bridge Theatre review ***

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Nightfall

The Bridge Theatre, 10th May 2018

If you haven’t been yet the Bridge Theatre offers up London’s best large scale flexible space. And very nice toilets. You’ve probably know that if you have any interest in things theatrical. You will also have probably have read that the space, and specifically the stage itself, here “thrust” into the audience, is the biggest handicap, as well as attraction, for this production of Barney Norris’s new play.

For mercurial designer Rae Smith, after the grim dystopian disappointment of the NT Macbeth, has conjured up a belter here along with lighting designer Chris Davey. A farmhouse cottage, its unkempt back garden, a massive, rusty oil pipe which runs behind it and a stunning realisation of the twilight sky, the backdrop for both acts. It looks amazing. Unfortunately the play itself, and its four characters, struggle to match its majesty. This is a play, as the criterati have unanimously observed, that would work better on a smaller stage. Not just because the subject, a dysfunctional family, is intimate, but also because the production, under the direction of Laurie Sansom, (he of the James Plays), is necessarily static.

That is not to say this isn’t an interesting drama, especially after the disclosures at the end of the first act. It just takes a bit of time to get going. We are on familiar territory. The inverse of the rural idyll. The trap that is the contemporary farm. I have raved before about director Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling, one of the best films of last year. which turns this setting into a visually and dramatically compelling narrative (The Levelling film review *****. The idea of Simon Longman’s Gundog at the Royal Court was powerful even if the play itself couldn’t support its weight (Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre review ***). Barney Norris himself has explored relationships in the rural setting of his native Hampshire before I gather, though I haven’t seen any of this work.

Jenny’s (Claire Skinner) husband has died leaving her the struggling farm. She is still grieving and prone to a sip or two of pinot grigio. Daughter Lou (Ophelia Lovibond) works at a local estate agent/developer but dreams of escape. Son Ryan (Sion Daniel Young, so good in Gary Owen’s Killology) has taken on the labouring. We first encounter Ryan with his friend Pete (Ukweli Roach) illegally tapping into the pipe, a ruse to rescue the farm. Pete has a bit of history with crime we learn and had a relationship with Lou, though she is now wary of him.

I understand why Barney Norris takes his time to flesh out his characters before advancing the plot but the wait does drag a little and, curiously, we don’t really get to appreciate why they have ended up tied to this place and each other. There are tensions, though again wisely, there are also still clear bonds between the four of them. As the secrets come out, as you knew then would, the pressure ratchets up. It doesn’t end well. Chekhov’s fingerprints are all over this.

Claire Skinner (a wonder in Terry Johnson’s underrated Prism at the Hampstead) does a grand job of showing Jenny’s slow disintegration and her desperation to keep the kids close at hand. Ukweli Roach and Ophelia Lovibond flesh out the relationship between Lou and Pete, alternately tender and matter-of-fact, and Sion Daniel Young shows us how immature Ryan tries to dodge reality.

It is worth staying with it, for there is truth in these characters, and it is easy to see what attracted Nicholas Hytner in wanting to stage it. I could also see, and hear, why people might be attracted to Barney Norris’s novels, where description and insight presumably augment any overly elegiac plotting. Writing about the everyday for the stage is hard, (the novel or film always works better), but Mr Norris knows how to. Just maybe not for this stage. Mind you I see that £15 will get you a seat up close in the pit for the last week or so and that is well worth it.