The Pope at the Royal and Derngate review ****

The Pope

Royal and Derngate Theatre Northampton, 13th June 2019

I suspect Kiwi Anthony McCarten has trousered a few quid in the last fewyears. What with writing the screenplay for The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody. But he has returned to his roots with this play, The Pope. Well maybe not exactly since this is actually going to end up as a film, released later this year, entitled Two Popes,(which to be fair is a more literally correct title), and starring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins. Whether these two titans of the stage and screen will match their two peers on show here in Northampton will likely be moot but I can report that this is a cracking story which, whilst packing a powerful dramatic punch, will likely benefit from the expanded breadth and location that film can bring.

Particularly in the first half of the story. The Pope takes the real life “abdication” of Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, (Anton Lesser) who is then succeeded by the current Pope Francis, Jorge Bergoglio, (Nicholas Woodeson), to contrast the conservative and liberal theological and practical viewpoints in the Catholic Church. When the two meet, after PBXVI summons PF to Rome to tell him of his intention, we get a good old fashioned dualistic debate which, in the hands of AL and and NW is absolutely gripping. In the first half however, when we get to see how each of them “got to where they are now” practically and philosophically, each with the help of a nun sidekick, the theatre is a good bit clunkier.

Even so it is pretty easy to see why Mr McCarten is such a good writer for the screen. There is, once we are into the swing of things, some sparkling dialogue and some properly powerful ding-dong. You don’t have to be a student of the Catholic Church or of religion generally to get the arguments. Of course it helps that Ratzinger is a buttoned up German, brought up in Nazi Germany, and a stickler for tradition, God’s Rottweiler as he was dubbed. He is devoted to Mozart, cabaret and some dog based soap opera (!). Bergoglio in contrast was a football loving, tango dancing Argentinian whose liberation theology was forged during the very dark days of the junta. He has a playful sense of humour, likes The Beatles and, I reckon, an eye for the ladies. And he becomes the first Jesuit Pope.

The regular reader of this blog will know that the Tourist takes a very dim view of organised religion in all its forms, (though he is somewhat hypocritically a massive fan of Christian art and architecture). And those Catholics seem to still be so f*cked up about sex. And cannot seem to confront the stain of abuse. All this angst though provides the ruminative material for Mr McCarten’s thoroughly researched, though speculative, text. The way that the contrasts between the two also highlight their similarities, such that antagonism and suspicion eventually resolves into mutual respect for each other and the bedrock of their shared faith, is a tale as old as the hills. After all it is Ratzinger who wants to break with 700 years of tradition and resign rather than die with his boots on in the Vatican.

Of course whilst Mr McCarten has the knack of drawing you in and pumping you up, he can’t resist, as those familiar with the films above will know, turning the emotional hyperbole dial up to 11. But whilst this occasionally grates it is easily forgiven especially when delivered by two actors of this calibre. I have no idea how Nicholas Woodeson has plotted his career through stage and screen. Maybe he just does what ever he fancies. But he is always bang on the money. Anton Lesser may have more of a classical bent, and I have some very fond early memories of him on the RSC stage, but he is similarly brilliant in whatever he does. It was genuinely thrilling to see him back in a theatre. Watching the two of them knock seven bells out of each other philosophically and then make up in some sort of liturgical bromance was delicious. And all this for less than a tenner.

Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins will have their work cut out to top this even if one might argue they are even bigger draws. (For my money Anton Lesser and Jonathan Pryce, along with Diana Rigg, Charles Dance and Stephen Dillane, were the very best of the illustrious bunch that showed the way to the newbies in GOT).

Even with these two leads and peppy script the play needed direction though and once again James Dacre was the man for the job. I guess having Paul Dace as your Dad, going to Eton, then Cambridge, and an intensive spell in US theatre, was never going to be a recipe for doubt or apprehension but you still have to admire the young man’s ambition. He may have inherited a space and a legacy from previous AD Laurie Sansom but even so it is easy to see why the R&D continues to scoop regional theatre awards. It might not be too much of a trek for the Tourist from the Smoke to Northampton but for theatre of this quality he would happily sit on a train for hours. Just take this 2019 Made in Northampton season. So far Our Lady of Kibeho (en route to Theatre Royal Straford), the terrific adaptation of The Remains of the Day., a belting Ghosts, Headlong’s Richard III with Tom Mothersdale. Just opening Complicite’s The Last of the Pelican Daughters. To come August Wilson’s Two Trains Running and A View From The Bridge to add to the R&D’s Miller stable. I assume the R&D makes a decent enough turn from all the touring of its productions but I strongly recommend if Northampton is anywhere near you you come join us old folk who still dominate and swell the coffers further.

Whilst the two female supporting roles of Sister Brigitta and Sister Sophia largely serve as devices to illuminate the Popes’ back stories Faith Alabi and Lynsey Beauchamp are as committed as the leads. And no expense has been spared on the elegant set and costumes courtesy of Jonathan Fensom, the lighting and sound designs of Charles Balfour and David Gregory respectively and even the composition from Anne Dudley and the video from Duncan McLean. There is nothing that would look out of place here on St Martins Lane. Who knows maybe after the film, (and the book, did I mention that?), that is precisely where it well end up.

All My Sons at the Old Vic Theatre review *****

All My Sons

Old Vic Theatre, 10th May 2019

Take Arthur Miller’s most “Greek” and, probably, most moralising play. Wheel in a couple of Hollywood heavyweights (Bill Pullman and Sally Field, Neve before seen on a UK stage). Add a couple of high recognition and talented Brit actors (Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan). And a supporting cast at the top of its game (Sule Rimi, Gunnar Cauthery, Kayla Meike, Bessie Carter and Oliver Johnstone). Design an entirely naturalistic, picket fenced, clapboard house set (Max Jones) draft an A team for lighting (Richard Howell), sound (Carolyn Downing) and video (Duncan McLean). Put Headlong chief Jeremy Herrin in charge, a man with a proven record of delivering serious, yet still entertaining, popular theatre (This House, Labour of Love, People, Places and Things, The Never, Junkyard and Wolf Hall/Brin up the Bodies). Kick off proceedings at a gentle canter but slowly and surely racket up the tension as the disclosures tumble out and the velocity of the dialogue accelerates. Don’t hold anything back at the end. Mr Miller certainly didn’t.

No surprise then that the Old Vic has a hit on its hands playing to packed houses with no need for the occasional discounting that has dogged a few, very good in my opinion, productions in the last couple of years (notably Fanny and Alexander). If you are to believe the Blonde Bombshells, BUD, KCK and the SO, and you should, this is well deserved. After a near miss with Three Sisters I have the team back in the palm of my booking blind hand.

So what is about the play and production that works so well? The last time I saw it, at the Rose Theatre in 2016, director Michael Rudman took a similar unfussy approach to proceedings, with a near identical set and some strong performances from Penny Downie as Kate Keller, Alex Waldmann as son Chris Keller and David Horovitch as Joe Keller, the “common man” and flawed “hero” of Miller’s tragedy. But it never really caught fire as here.

This is largely down to the quartet of excellent performances at the heart of the play. Though we have had a couple of contrarian opinions elsewhere in the viewing circle that mostly centre on the casting of Bill Pullman as Joe, which I can acknowledge but not agree with.

Bill Pullman started out as a stage actor but, as far as I can see, got sidetracked, as one might, by the big bucks of Hollywood. It is fair to say not everything he has laid down on celluloid has been of the highest quality though, also fair to say, I don’t know most of his films. He does have a very particular style of delivery though which, for me, works to great effect here. The pitch of his performance is pretty much unchanged throughout, but its amplitude is constantly changing. Alternately sympathetic, matey, defensive, aggressive, wheedling underneath the homespun, bumbling exterior, this is a man who who knows one day his secret will break him but continues to deny it even to himself, until right at the end. Sally Field as Kate, is similarly covering up, and therefore refuses to accept that her pilot son Larry died in the war, casting a protective cordon around her family. When she finally “finds out” the truth her impassiveness speaks volumes. In my pretty limited experience the stars of the American big screen generally hold back on stage, (a notable exception being Christian Slater in the recent Glengarry Glen Ross). That’s close-ups for you. It can seen underpowered, (and I wouldn’t want to see this production from up in the gods). Jeremy Herrin tough, with his master of pace, finds a way to turn this to advantage, “naturalising” the exposition of the first act and making the sh*t-hit-fan third act even more devastating

It was a joy to see Jenna Coleman as Ann Deever take to the stage after her phenomenally successful TV career. Her exchanges with Sally Field, as she and Chris seek her approval, are extremely affecting. For me though, Colin Morgan as Chris was the star of the show. Racked with survivor guilt from his brother’s death, and buried anger from his own war experiences, and then seeing his chance of happiness through a life with Ann turn to ashes as his father’s sins, (which deep down I think he knows), are revealed. Mr Morgan, as in Translations at the NT, (though this is a very different role even if he again stands at the centre of the plot), is dynamic and enthralling.

All My Sons first appeared in 1947. AM’s first efforts attracted critical acclaim but his previous Broadway opening in 1944, The Man Who Had All The Luck, was a flop closing after just 4 performances. Thank goodness he didn’t give up. All My Sons doesn’t quite scale the heights of its successors, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge, but, as the standing ovation here demonstrated, (mind you that is par for the course now and no bad thing – these creatives deserve our gratitude), it delivers a whacking great emotional punch to the gut. Maybe not quite as much food for thought or structural elegance as those successors, and there are a few near McGuffins, (that letter), in the plot, but this is what drama is all about. You might occasionally rankle at the way AM controls the flow of information, and elevates dialogue over action, but you’ll still be hanging on every word as you catch up with what the various characters know, don’t know and learn about the central hubris. There’s also the old Miller criticism chestnut of veiled misogyny given that Ann acts primarily as the catalyst of the emerging truth and Kate is seen as somehow manipulating those around here. You might also, as a couple of our crew did, question the end, but, hey, that’s catharsis folks.

Well I didn’t know this. AMS is actually based on a true story which AM’s mother-in-law pointed out about an Ohio based aeronautical company that conspired with army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft engines for military use, eventually leading to a congressional investigation. I can see why this would have piqued AM’s interest. It could accommodate his overarching concern, the corruption of the American Dream, but here his critique of capitalist individualism riding roughshod over socialist collectivism, found an unambiguous moral centre in one family’s story. Whatever one’s political persuasion, putting profit above the safety of young men fighting for their country and for freedom is surely a no-no, but then again sending them to war in the first place shows a remarkable lack of collective intelligence on the part of the human race. Joe made the execrable decision, (or absence of decision), but did he feel the pressure from the military and the ideal of family? Where AM is really smart though is in taking inspiration not just from the Greeks, (All My Sons even strictly obeys the unities of time, place and action), but also from Ibsen, specifically The Wild Duck, where Hakon Werle’s wealth and influence is built on a crime that his former business partner, Old Ekdal, took the rap for.

There is also a pop at the veracity of the legal justice, (both Ann and brother George (Oliver Johnstone) believe their father is guilty and Joe innocent because the investigation said so), the frustrations, resentments and contradictions of “normal” small town America families, the Bayliss’ and the Lubeys,( though at least they don’t have the back story of the Kellers and the Deevers), are exposed, as are class and education. In the end though the story of a man, (or woman), losing, (or finding), their honour has brought us together for thousands of years (as all you GoT fans know). Hard to imagine anything better.

Of course all that was before we went down the road a week later to see The Death of a Salesman. Crikey.

The Phlebotomist at Hampstead Theatre review *****

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The Phlebotomist

Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, 2nd May 2018

The Phlebotomist is sold out for the rest of its runs. So you had better hope that it pitches up elsewhere, ideally with the current cast and creatives, for it really is an excellent play. There are three almighty talents on show here. Writer Ella Road in this her debut play, actor Jude Anouka who just keeps on getting better and better and director Sam Yates who proved his mettle with Glengarry Glen Ross recently, but here extracts the maximum amount of tension and drama out of what is already a smartly plotted story.

It is another one of these near future dystopian dramas, which playwrights are currently obsessed with. No real surprise there. Us liberal, luvvie types are never happier than when warning ourselves, (for we are the audience), about the impending disasters that beset us, ideally disasters precipitated by the very technologies which we benefit from most. Ella Road’s story starts with a slightly different, and I think more chilling and realistic premise, that blood samples will be used to provide a detailed genetic profile, an early prognosis of what medical conditions will impact you through your life and even your behavioural characteristics. You can avoid the test but this will impact your educational, employment, credit and relationship prospects and looks shifty. Of course taking the test, and finding out the details all wrapped up in a rating out of 10, will also impact those prospects.

Bea (Jade Anouka) is the phlebotomist, (no I didn’t know either), who administers the test. She, quite literally, bumps into Aaron, (a fine performance from Rory Fleck Byrne, a new name to me), who turns out to be a descendant of the poet Lord Tennyson. They fall in love (and look like they do such is the chemistry between them). Turns out they both have high scores. Char, Bea’s friend, (a spirited Cherrelle Skeete, also new to me), does not and she abandons her career to campaign against the system, after an attempt at deception. The only other character is David (Vincent Ebrahim) a softly spoken, sagacious porter at the hospital Bea works in.

I won’t elaborate. Suffice to say that Ella Road provides enough disclosures to keep the plot moving along but not too many to raise eyebrows. The world she conjures up cleverly eschews compulsion, there is no evil state organ here, implying benign, market driven compliance, (as with so many informational threats to our privacy). Avoidance and manipulation of the test results are, rightly, key elements of the plot. It all feels very real. It asks some big questions, even tackling the stain of eugenics, but never, ever, appears didactic. How much should we know about our genetic make-up? Should this ever be made public? How “perfect” do we want to be? Ms Road has an unmistakeable view but ensures all three main characters elicit our sympathy.

The dialogue between those characters is believable, the monologues perfectly placed, there is humour and there is even a memorable tomato based metaphor (you’ll see). It is something that Charlie Brooker and the Black Mirror team would have been proud to come up with, but this is achieved without their giant budget, and, I think, has far more emotional clout. Rosanna Vize offers a simple, grey transverse set at the HT Downstairs, a few chairs and other props. Zoe Spurr’s lighting and Alex Twiselton’s sound are similarly economic but very effective. Costume changes are effected on-stage. The production is helped enormously by Duncan McLean’s snappy video work which offers social and political context so that the play, which at its¬†heart, is a story about the relationships between Bea and Aaron, and Bea and Char, is never overwhelmed by its central conceit.

Jade Anouka was mesmerising in the Phyllida Lloyd Donmar Warehouse Shakespeare trilogy, as Ariel, as Mark Antony and as Hotspur. She was the only saving grace in the otherwise execrable Jamie Lloyd Faustus. You may have seen her in the recent ITV production of the Trauma, by Mike Bartlett. She was the daughter of Adrian Lester’s high-flying surgeon. When John Simm, who plays the embittered father of one of Mr Lester’s patients, invades the family home, her fear jumps through the screen into your living room. (How Mike Bartlett keeps getting away with these electrically charged finales verging on the melodramatic beats me, but he does).

Up close as here, she is bloody marvellous to watch. A completely natural performer. Not to decry her three colleagues but it is difficult to take your eyes off her. Sam Yates does seem to have a knack of ensuring that great stage actors, (and I am putting Ms Anouka in that category), are great on stage. Not as easy as it sounds. I offer the evidence of, especially, Christian Slater, but also¬†Robert Glenister, Stanley Townsend and Don Warrington in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse (Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre review ****), Emily Barber in The Globe Cymbeline, Jane Horrocks in East is East, his collaboration with Ruth Wilson. Why he hasn’t been offered a big gig at the National is a mystery to me.