Monogamy at the Park Theatre review ***

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Monogamy

Park Theatre 200, 28th June 2018

This was a curious confection. Playwright Torben Betts (there his is above) has, by all accounts, made a very creditable stab exploring the comic social realism so expertly, and prolifically, mined by his one time mentor Alan Ayckbourn. Here is another to follow the likes of Invincible and Muswell Hill (also set in a kitchen). I hadn’t seen any of his work before, other than his adaption of Chekhov’s Seagull at the Open Air Theatre, which displayed his sympathy for the Russian master.

With Janie Dee in the title role, so superb in the NT’s Follies, as Caroline, a celebrity TV chef whose “perfect” life starts to unravel, this sounded interesting. Which, in some ways, it was. The problem is that it couldn’t quite make up its mind what it wanted to be or say. Nothing wrong with flipping between comedy and tragedy, this is after all, what the mighty Chekhov and all his subsequent acolytes have strived to perfect. The British middle class family, and specifically the British middle class marriage, is a perfect dramatic target and is guaranteed to put knowing bums on theatrical seats. (Remember the phrase “middle class” in this, and most other, contexts doesn’t actually mean those in the middle. It means those at the top who assuage their guilt, and give themselves room to complain about their entitled lot, by pretending they are in the middle. I should know. I am one of them).

In Monogamy though the comedy, whilst often very witty was just too broad, veering into farce. The satire was just too obvious, the targets too cliched. The tragedy too contrived. I am pretty sure this technicolour effect was what Mr Betts set out to achieve, assisted by Alistair Whatley’s direction,  but it left me a little muddled despite some satisfying individual elements.

The play opens with the effortlessly capable Caroline rehearsing in the kitchen of her house which, temporarily is doubling up as her TV show kitchen. After the show her new PA, the coked-up Amanda, very amusingly played by Genevieve Gaunt with sub-Russell Brand verbal strangles, breezes in and announces the tabloids have got pics of Caroline pouring herself out of a bar after a big night out. It is wine o’clock though and Caroline, glass in hand, starts preparing for a party to celebrate son Leo’s Cambridge graduation. Leo (Jack Archer) is brooding, indulgently left-wing, gay and looking for his parents approval/spoiling for a fight as he comes out. We discover that builder Graeme (Jack Sandle), polishing up the house for sale, is having an affair with Caroline. As if this wasn’t enough the second act sees the return of the utterly over the top husband Mike return from his round of golf, (played with blustering, red-faced, apoplectic aplomb by Patrick Ryecart), and the arrival of Sally, (an under-utilised Charlie Brooks), bent on revenge for her husband’s infidelity. And the action ratchets up from there to a blackly comic conclusion, a knife standing in for the Chekhovian gun.

So you can see. Sit-comish staples, farcical energy, a hotch-potch of targets. Mike is a banker. And a philanderer. Obviously. Caroline is a Christian. Improbably., and her faith offers no protection from the demolition of family and fame. Sally is depressed, conveyed with real pathos by Charlie Brooks, but drowned by the rest of the shenanigans. Salt of the earth type Graeme turns out to have not so hidden depths of compassion. Amanda thinks they are all w*nkers, a fair enough assessment in the circumstances though she is the very embodiment of annoying. Though it may not be her fault as, McGuffin alert, her Mum has just died. Leo and Daddy make up, sort of.

It is genuinely hard not to like much of the detail and the performances, and I for one would be happy to acquire the kitchen conjured up in James Perkins’s set, but all together it overwhelms to the point of underwhelming if you see what I mean. I am pretty sure Torben Betts will hit the theatrical jackpot (and he can write other, more serious fare). This just doesn’t quite cohere. Having said that I gather it is set to tour in 2019, after a mini-tour prior to the run at the Park, and I would certainly look out for it if it comes near you.

 

Follies at the National Theatre review *****

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Follies

National Theatre, 2nd November 2017

I now think I might be mistaken in my general aversion to musical theatre. I think the problem may be that I just haven’t seen enough Sondheim. You can see from all the proper reviews and audience feedback just how well this production has gone down. Believe it. This is outstanding. Worth the thirty year wait And this from someone who is never happier than when he is locked up with 20 other punters above a pub seeing some obscure piece of European metaphysical miserabilism. So you can trust me on this.

There are a handful of tickets left. Or you can go with the Friday Rush or Day Tickets approach. If you can bear to do this, it will be worth it. This obviously cost a bomb to stage, so who knows if it will transfer, though patently it deserves too. If all else fails get to the cinema on 16th November when the performance will be screened live. Anyway, with a bit of luck, you are not a pompous, prejudiced berk like me and you will have already seen it.

Why so gushing? Design yes, courtesy of the gifted Vicki Mortimer, with her half=demolished theatre come to life on stage. The Olivier stage works best when the revolve is gainfully employed and when there is a hulking piece of stuff in the middle playing its part, as it does here. Direction yes. As others have remarked it is hard to believe this is Dominic Cooke’s first musical. Mind you, most everything he has done before, notably at the Royal Court, has turned to gold. This catapults him right to the top of the directorial league. The 21 piece orchestra, conducted by Nigel Lilley, the musical supervision of Nicholas Skilbeck, the orchestration of Jonathan Tunick and Josh Clayton and the outstanding choreography of Bill Deamer, especially in the tap routines; all combine seamlessly. Lighting and costumes are also to die for. Neon, washes, spotlights, feathers, sequins, heels, frocks, wigs, dickie bows, acres of face slap. Glam and glitz all present, correct and suitably superficial as the tale demands.

The 37 strong cast (bigger than a Premiership squad) is uniformly marvellous. The four leads garner most of the plaudits. Watching Imelda Staunton’s Sally, her girlish excitement as she is reunited with paramour Ben turning to bitter disappointment as reality bites, is about as good as acting gets. This is Imelda Staunton though so expect no less. Her rendition of “Losing My Mind” is spine tinglingly raw. Janie Dee as Phyllis, all disdainful bitterness, matches her. A trail of bile follows her round the stage. It all comes flooding out in the contemptuous “Could I Leave You”. Philip Quast is the big male beast of proper musical theatre and his Ben Stone is, to use another cliche, commanding. Watching him finally fall to pieces in the “Live, Laugh, Love” is as moving as theatre gets. Poor old Ben; money and status can’t buy you love or happiness. In my book, Buddy is the trickiest character to pull off, but not for Peter Forbes, who nails Buddy’s solipsistic refusal to take responsibility, preferring to play the fool, as he does in the “God Why Don’t You Love Me Blues”.

The younger ghostly doppelgangers (Fred Haig, Zizi Strallen, Alex Young and Adam Rhys-Charles) are perfectly matched, to each other and their mature selfs, and move effortlessly round the set. Who else? Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta, as she belts out “I’m Still Here”, even though no-one is listening, makes you want to punch the air. Operatic soprano Josephine Barstow’s duet with her younger Heidi self, play by Alison Langer, is another highlight. As, unsurprisingly, is Di Botcher as besuited Hattie in “Broadway Baby”. There are some other mind-blowing set pieces. The routine where the ladies intertwine with their sequinned and head-dressed younger selves is a highlight, as are the entrances early on down the fire escape stairs. The pastiche/parody routines are jaw dropping, camply serious, not seriously camp.

Here’s the thing though. All this stuff wouldn’t work for me if there weren’t real characters inside all the song and dance stuff and if the text and lyrics didn’t illuminate the characters. I can see that, at its heart, the story of a reunion of the showgirl cast and creator of an interwar Follies review is pretty flimsy. And that the idea of regret over lives lived and not lived, is hardly ground-breaking dramatic material. And bugger all happens. But I cared so much for these people.

And I think that even in the absence of a more upbeat ending as was apparently the case in the 1987 revival, this is still perversely an uplifting piece of theatre. And not just because of the tunes, though the way Sondheim’s music wraps its way around his lyrics, particularly into and out of the big songs, is a wonder to the ears. He just seems to perfectly capture not just the cadence of the words but also the emotions of the characters. No, the reason I came out all puffed up after this is because I think Sondheim, and writer James Goldman, tell us that all of this agonising over what might have been, which is basically what our four leads spend 2 hours bemoaning, is ultimately pointless. You only have one life. It will be full of disappointment and missed opportunities. But you might as well try and be happy with what you have. I appreciate this homily is f*ck all use if you don’t have the basics, or if your relationship threatens your physical or mental well being, but I can only describe what I think I saw and heard. There are plenty of other bright sparks, starting with that Buddha chap, who would agree that the best thing to do is ditch the constant yearning for something better. Dump the act: be yourself.

So there you have it. Redemption for Rufus Norris, AD at the NT, after the string of misses, (not as bad as some think in my book), on the Olivier stage this season. A triumphant revival of a marvellous piece of theatre where no-one, literally, puts a foot wrong. I am still smiling a week later. Loved it. No idea what the original audiences in 1971 Broadway were thinking when they failed to turn this into a monster hit.