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.

The Last King of Scotland at the Sheffield Crucible review *****

The Last King of Scotland

Crucible Sheffield, 28th September 2019

The Tourist generally agrees with all those smart people paid to review theatrical productions. That is a) because they now what they are doing, they are experts with experience and should be listened to, rather than some halfwit with his/her half baked opinions on social media, and b) because, and this is a subset of a), those professional opinions will inevitably influence the ever reflexive Tourist even if he waits until after he has seen an entertainment before passing comment.

Sometimes though I just think they are wrong. With The Last King of Scotland being a case in point. To be fair it did get some decent reviews in the local and specialist theatre press but the broadsheets gave it a pasting. And I cannot, for the life of me, see why. The elements of stagecraft used to convey the story were resoundingly successful in my view and any criticism focussed on the characters, most specifically Doctor Nicholas Garrigan, is misplaced. Why the fictional good Scottish doctor ended up tending the monster Idi Amin is an enigma, not answered in Giles Foden’s book, nor in this adaptation from Steve Waters. Is it fear? Is it professional pride? Is it love? We never know and that is exactly why the story is so compelling in my view.

Now I am a big fan of both book and the film 2006 film, directed by Kevin Macdonald, who also oversaw the film of Touching the Void, taken from a very fine book which itself is the current subject of an excellent theatrical make-over courtesy of David Greig. Who in turn is responsible for another current play of a film(s) of a book in the form of Solaris at the Lyric Hammersmith. The screenplay for TLKOS was penned by Jeremy Brock and no less than Peter Morgan, whose sumptuous magnum opus The Crown you may have heard of and is just about to return to our screens complete with its new roster of A list actors. Note that the Tourist and the SO last night took in Lungs at the Old Vic starring the outgoing Queen Liz and Phil the Greek in Claire Foy and Matt Smith. It’s a small world this drama lark.

Anyway the film deservedly earned Forrest Whittaker an Oscar for his portrayal of Idi Amin Dada Oumee and plenty of praise for the lovely James McAvoy, soon due to grace the London stage in Cyrano. No less than Gillian Anderson and David Oyelowo starred alongside them, but for me the best performance came from Simon McBurney OBE who played Stone, the jaded Foreign Office flunkey who attempts to recruit Garrigan to the British cause as they switch tracks and watch on helplessly as Amin rises to power. I always assume Mr McBurney takes on these film roles to fund his day job as one of the planet’s greatest theatre makers through his company Complicite, but he is never less than compelling even in the likes of Harry Potter or Mission Impossible.

In this stage adaptation however it is hard to take your eyes off Tobi Bamtefa who plays Amin, from the coup in Uganda which overthrew the repressive regime of Milton Obote in 1971 through to his deposal in 1979 and the return of Obote and civil war. Mr Bamtefa was a member of the original Barber Shop Chronicles cast and had a small part in Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network at the NT, as well as a few TV roles, and he is set to join the cast of Inua Ellams’s Three Sisters, set in Nigeria and coming up at the NT. But this was his first major stage opportunity I believe and he grabbed it with both ample hands. The character of the imposing, capricious Amin comes with audience preconceptions, (at least those old enough or interested enough to know something of the history), but, for me, Tobi Bamtefa was utterly convincing. Impossible to take your eyes off him as he turns from briskly comic to bizarrely cruel in an instant. Which is exactly as it should be. The scenes between him and Daniel Portman’s Garrigan were electric, from the early encounter when the doctor fixes Amin’s hand all the way through to full blown bedroom meltdown at the end. Adventure, idealism, influence, fear, fascination, love are all a part of why Garrigan stays long after, morally, he should have escaped. And, like all evil tyrants, Amin exerts a powerful charisma alongside brutal, erratic power. That is the warning from history which the play delivers.

Although the two leads dominate there are strong supporting performances from Akuc Boc as Kay Amin and Joyce Omotola as his other wife Malyam, as well as John Omole as Peter Mbalu-Mukasa, Garrigan’s doctor colleague and Kay’s lover. The scene where Garrigan refuses to perform and abortion for the couple, despite knowing the consequences for them should Amin find out, is riveting. Baker Mukasa plays Jonah Wasswa, the Minister of Health and eventually just about everything else, George Eggay the Archbishop who defies Amin and Hussina Raja is, amongst other roles, Pritti, a Ugandan Asia who takes on Amin at the time of the expulsion. Peter Hamilton Dyer is Perkins the hapless ambassador, Eva-Jane Willis his inhibited wife who rebuffs Garrigan’s advances and Mark Oosterveen plays Stone, here linked to the secret services.

Last King of Scotland aficionados will see that the plot here is much closer to book than film, which latter took a few liberties with Giles Foden’s original events and characters. To be fair, with its fictional TV clips with three recurring journalists (local, UK and US) to provide historical exposition, these events do move on at a fair lick which perhaps overly accelerates Amin’s descent from national saviour into crazed murderer. This, together with Garrigan’s, deliberate, passivity, might frustrate some viewers but it worked for me. Gbolahan Obisesan’s direction, (whose adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s novel The Fisherman is well worth seeing), doesn’t try to resolve this equivocation which makes the central message even more disturbing. It is pretty easy to think that, confronted with such atrocity, we would walk away if we could but, more often that not, the reality is we wouldn’t, instead choosing to become complicit in the horror.

There are plenty of memorable scenes visually, facilitated by Rebecca Brower colourful set and costume designs, Sally Ferguson’s lighting and Donato Wharton’s sound, even if sometimes the spacious Crucible stage swallows up the action. The film’s infamous meat hook scene is here eschewed but the horror is still effectively conveyed with a grisly scene near the end. Theatre cannot of course convey the immensity of such horror but it can, think Macbeth, Titus Andronicus or Richard III, try to get inside the mind of the man who presides over it. The Last King of Scotland doesn’t get anywhere close to this, that would be too much to ask, but as a slice of theatre, and history, with a moral message, this definitely worked.