The Starry Messenger at the Wyndham’s Theatre review ***

The Starry Messenger

Wyndham’s Theatre, 5th August 2019

The Tourist, despite his evident theatre addiction, rarely jumps in to secure a ticket early for the “star” vehicles that crop up in the West End. It usually pays to wait to see how well regarded play and production are. Demand often adjusts to supply, pushing down price, in a pleasingly classical economics way. So far this year the strategy has worked for True West, The Price, Rosmersholm, Bitter Wheat and this, The Starry Messenger. I enjoyed Kenneth Lonergan’s last film Manchester by the Sea and see he had a hand in the writing of Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York, though plainly that film’s sprawling genius largely stems from Daniel Day-Lewis’s turn as Bill the Butcher. The reviews of A Starry Messenger from its original off-Broadway production in 2009 were also largely promising, (though it apparently got off to a very shaky start).

Matthew Broderick had a small part in MBTS and in Mr Lonergan’s epic failure Margaret, and larger roles in a whole string of Hollywood pap that has passed me by. However, he is probably still most famous for his early turn in cult teen movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which is, IMHO, a bloody awful film, and, for the Tourist, in Alexander Payne’s Election, which is certainly not. And maybe also for being married to Sarah Jessica Parker, a terrible actor, though maybe that is the fault of the execrable Sex and the City in which she “starred”. And for a tragic traffic accident for which he seems to have escaped punishment. (The Tourist takes a dim view of the scale of justice usually meted out in such circumstances).

His co-star here was Elizabeth McGovern. Another Hollywood stalwart that the Tourist barely recognises. And this despite her living in Blighty and treading the boards in London in recent years. You will no doubt know her best as someone called Cora, the Countess of Grantham, in Downton Abbey. Of which I can truthfully, and proudly, say, I have only seen for maybe ten minutes in total, and that by accident. This is what comes of being an intellectual snob, devoting one’s cultural energies to quality British TV drama, art-house cinema from around the world, and elevating the theatre above all other performing arts.

Mr Broderick plays the stoical Mark Williams, a public lecturer in astronomy, at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. Ms McGovern is his chipper schoolteacher wife Anne. They have one, unseen though not unheard, teenage son. Mark is middle-aged, not quite in crisis, but a bemused, and amused, pedant whose life is passing him by. He still loves Anne but gentle bickering is their default mode of exchange. When animated, Puerto Rican, single Mom, nurse, Angela Vasquez stumbles into his lecture hall though, something of his life force returns. They have an unlikely affair. Tragedy strikes. So far so predictable. What makes all this cliche forgivable is Mr Lonergan’s ear for dialogue. These are ordinary people, doing ordinary things, in their ordinary lives, but with a depth of feeling which reaches for the infinite. They talk but don’t really listen. Misunderstanding and frustration abounds. At least that’s the idea. Hammered home with all the stargazey, metaphorical opportunity afforded by Mr Williams’s employ, especially right at the end. Faith plainly is not the answer in KL’s book.

It goes on a bit, nearly three hours, and, whilst I can remember the basics of the plot, and, Chiara Stevenson’s elegant set, with its night sky backdrop, the detail is already fading. It is fortunate that Matthew Broderick is playing a relatively dull man. Otherwise I might have mistaken him for a relatively bad actor. As it turns out, and particularly in the more humorous passages, his performance actually works. He is a modest man and, though, to paraphrase Churchill, he has much to be modest about, he is still striving for a good life.

Ms McGovern is an altogether more convincing stage presence but sadly we see too little of her and her part is underwritten. Rosalind Eleazar as Anela sails convincingly through the more hackneyed of her character’s traits, whether in the awkward and anguished scenes with Mark in her apartment, or in those with the terminally ill Norman (Jim Norton), the crusty old boy in her care, and his tetchy daughter Doris (Sinead Matthews), which provides the sub-plot. There are are regular laughs, often extracted from the regular members of the class Mark teaches, notably the some way behind the curve Mrs Pysner (Jenny Galloway), and from the wonderfully tactless, serial course-attender Ian (Sid Sagar). (I see that Kieran Culkin, another relater KL collaborator, played Ian in the original Broadway production. If you haven’t yet seen his turn as Roman Roy in HBO’s Succession then you are in for a treat). Another highlight is Mark’s conversations with his more successful, though still supportive as he pits Mark forward for a research role, academic colleague Arnold (Joplin Sibtain).

Chekhov it ain’t. But sometimes, in its wriggling ambivalence, it does a fair impression. KL, as you will probably have surmised, has spent far more time on the detail of the lines than the novelty of the plot or the wider context. But somehow, despite the irritations, I sort of quite liked it. Sam Yates last outing was with Ella Road’s excellent debut play The Phlebotomist but prior to that he, as here, rose to the occasion to direct acting royalty (notably Christian Slater) in the excellent Glengarry Glen Ross revival.

The original Hayden Planetarium, as we see at the end of the play, closed in 1997, to be reborn as Rose Centre foe Earth and Space attached to the American Museum of Natural History, (which I know from bitter experience feels almost as large as the universe itself). As he reveals in the programme he and Matthew Broderick went their together when they were kids. So now I understand why he has been so generous to his lifelong friend. After all, in the end, friends and relationships are all we really have.

Girl From the North Country review ****

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Girl From the North Country

The Old Vic, 20th September 2017

(Girl From the North Country is transferring to the Noel Coward Theatre from 29th Dec 2017 through to 24th Mar 2018)

I am afraid there is a bit of a rant coming. If the Old Vic is going to fill matinee performances with teenage schoolkids can it please find a way to get them to shut up during the performance. I can just about deal with the Old Vic’s kettle-ing of the audience into the tiny foyer, the toilet squeezes (and I am a bloke – the ladies queue looks worse), the sometimes loose productions let down by under-rehearsal, the leg-room in parts of the Lilian Baylis Circle, the sound quality in parts of the stalls and the occasionally grasping approach to interval scheduling. Why? Because it is the Old Vic, a commercial theatre with no subsidy that does its level best to bring together the best creatives with classic plays and important new works. And it is a big space to fill. And, to be fair, they are doing something about the layout.

Now pitching up at matinees here and at the Young Vic is going to mean schoolkids. And by and large that is a brilliant thing. Watching some young-uns relax into the Joe Hill-Gibbons’s Midsummer Night Dream earlier in the year was a joy to behold. A bit of cacophony before the curtain rise, some fidgeting, the odd screen flicker, maybe even one or two whispers is normally a fair exchange for the audible gasps or whoops when something really exciting happens on stage. But what I could not stomach here was a trio of show-offs pointedly stage-whispering throughout. Too loud and frequent to ignore. Couldn’t find a teacher/TA to gently vent fury so ended up seething.

And thus my journey to grumpy old man is complete.

Anyway it meant that my enjoyment of Girl From the North Country was compromised. Which is a shame. Because as the remaining full houses and official and audience reviews suggest, it is very very good. I went with the SO as a replacement for BUD, who I had attempted to rope in, knowing full well that he would be enmeshed instead in a world of finance. Now the SO is famed in our house for her dislike of “musical theatre” and for eschewing any information in advance about what she will be seeing in the theatre. So having failed to gauge any reaction during the first half from her usual Sphinx-like gaze (and having myself been focused on the stage itself whilst trying to zone out the offending youths) I waited with bated breath for her verdict. “It is good – I am enjoying it”. I was tempted to insert the word “really” before “good” or “enjoying” in the previous sentence but that would imply a level of rapture that the SO rarely attains. in fact in the last 5 years of theatre going only The Ferryman, Andrew Scott’s Hamlet and Hytner’s NT Othello claimed a “really” good accolade.

Anyway the point is that this play with music really works. It is no surprise that writer Conor McPherson’s text is a delight. This is the man who delights in story-telling from a theatrical culture that does likewise. The setting, a guest house in Duluth, Minnesota (the birth-place of Bob Dylan) in 1934 as the US is emerging from the Great Depression, lends itself perfectly to this tableau of interweaving narratives. The characters are one rung up from the completely dispossessed, and the Crash and the ensuing credit collapse and failed harvests are swinging into the rear view mirror, but these characters still have next to nothing and are scraping around for the means to live.

Sorry another aside. If you ever get a chance read the novel Duluth by Gore Vidal which uses the city as a starting point for a brilliantly structured flight of fancy with layers of meaning and sharp satire. As usual Mr Vidal was decades ahead of the zeitgeist. And now I see there is a revival of his play, The Best Man, about to tour. I hope the production does it justice as the text (and film adaptation with Henry Fonda in the lead) shows a play with real relevance to US politics today, (though at the time of writing Vidal’s acerbic wit was aimed at Nixon, the Kennedys and McCarthy). That nice Martin Shaw will take the lead role and Simon Evans will direct (a wise choice given his recent Arturo Ui at the Donmar). I would definitely gives this a viewing.

Anyway back to the matter in hand. Now there is a big Bob Dylan shaped whole in my life. I have tried half-heartedly to fill it but have never really been persuaded. Seeing and hearing this might have changed my mind, but if it eventually doesn’t that is no judgement on the 20 songs here. For in the context of the production the music and lyrics were a perfect fit. There is no particular attempt to make lyrics echo plot or vice versa. This is a play with songs (some partial, some reprised and most realised with standing microphones) and not a musical. No jazz hands, fisting clenching or “woe is me” ballads. Just a procession of interludes where one or more of the characters plunder Mr Dylan’s back catalogue (across the decades so not just the obvious early folk-y/bluegrass-y stuff) accompanied by a band playing only instruments of the Depression years period. (Hats off to musicians, Alan Berry, Charlie Brown, Pete Callard and Don Richardson). The arrangements from Simon Hale are very satisfying, the lyrics are self-evidently beautiful and the performances pitch perfect (emotionally I mean – obviously some of the cast are better singers than others). Particular favourites for me were Slow Train, Jokerman, Hurricane, You Ain’t Going Nowhere and Make You Feel My Love. And the diminutive Shirley Henderson belting out Like a Rolling Stone.

Mr McPherson, who directs here as well, an eminently sensible decision given the structure of the work, lets the characters emerge with a sparse but emotionally affecting text. The whole play is only just over a couple of hours. Strip out the music and maybe there is 90 minutes of drama. Yet there are 13 named characters. We get to know all of them and their stories though. That alone is a remarkable achievement.

Ciaran Hinds plays the owner of the guesthouse Nick Laine. A big man whose dreams were crushed a long time ago. Last time we saw Mr Hinds he was a curiously lifeless Claudius in the Cumberbatch Hamlet. Here though he is what he should be. Wife Elizabeth has long since retreated into her own world but her delusions do not stop her seeing the essence of what is going on around her. Shirley Henderson (whom I adore) is maybe a tiny bit over the top but her unravelled self works as metaphor for America in these years. Son Gene, played by telly star, Sam Reid yearns to write but likes the whisky a bit much. Again a stock character, true, but not a stereotype. Adopted daughter Marianne, played by Sheila Atim, is black and hugs the guest-house for fear of attack. Nick would like to marry her off to elderly shop-owner Mr Perry (Jim Norton) but she resists, fearing a life of unhappiness and frustration. Katherine Draper (the excellent Claudia Jolly) is passing through and has hopes of an inheritance which will let her set up a business with Nick with whom she is having an affair. Yet Nick will never leave Elizabeth and, anyway, Katherine’s financial salvation vanishes into thin air.

A couple of cons then crash the guesthouse, Joe Scott (Arinze Kene who I need to keep tabs on) a good man, an ex-boxer, who woos Marianne, and “Reverend” Meadows, (a suitably sly Michael Schaeffer), a self-styled preacher and bible seller, who is up to no good. We are also joined by the bankrupt and broken Burke family (moving performances from Stanley Townsend and Bronagh Gallagher) whose son Elias (Jack Shalloo) has an intellectual disability. And to top it off we have the mighty Ron Cook as Dr Walker, who acts as narrator to add context, Mrs Nielsen (Debbie Kurup) and a fine ensemble (Kirsty Malpass, Tome Peters, Karl Queensborough) to add depth to the chorus.¬†Overall all then¬†a busy stage but the scene changes were deftly handled.

Now if I had a small misgiving, (aside from the babbling youth), it would be that the structure and length of the play constrains any real plot development. As I say we get to “know” these characters and understand their dreams and frustrations but, all up, only a few things actually happen. No matter given the sublime spell that the dialogue, music and lyrics help to create, but I think this could actually have done with being a little longer (a rare request from the Tourist) to expand the stories of the Laine and Burke families in particular, and maybe heighten the drama. I also think that when this is revived, (the rest of the run is sold out I think), as it surely will be, an outdoor setting, on a summer’s evening, might turn it into magic.

Anyway,whilst maybe not quite up there with Mr McPherson’s The Weir on the theatrical bucket list, this is a play with music that should be seen. Even, or maybe especially, if you are not a Dylan devotee. Remember it was the recalcitrant Nobel Prize winner who approached Mr McPherson and attached no strings to the project. Clearly he knew that justice would be done to his poetry (though it seems the old curmudgeon hasn’t seen it yet).