I’m Not Running at the National Theatre review ***

I’m Not Running

National Theatre Lyttleton, 22nd January 2019

If you have a moment one day take a look at the writing credits of David Hare, both for stage and screen. There are a lot, including some of the finest dramas written in the English language over the past four decades. And he shows no sign of slowing down in contrast to some of his eminent peers. I enjoyed his interpretation of Chekhov’s The Seagull and his last original play, The Moderate Soprano, (even if it veered towards the hagiographic), as well as his screenplay for the film Denial, and prior to that the Worricker thriller trilogy on telly, which he also directed. I can’t say I was completely persuaded by The Red Barn, his adaptation of a Georges Simeon story, his last outing at the NT, though it looked brilliant nor by Collateral, his four part TV police procedural/thriller on the Beeb last year, which was packed with detail and performance but didn’t quite hang together (especially when compared to the likes of Line of Duty and Informer).

So is the old boy going off the boil. Well, obviously not. Here is someone who can literally churn out line after line of exquisitely apposite dialogue in his sleep, (even if it does verge on catechism), his drama continues to be stuffed with commentary on big moral, political, social and economic issues, the sine qua non of state-of-the-nation drama, he can sketch out a character in just a few lines, (even if deeper psychological details can sometimes move elusive), and his stories normally have a verve and pace that rapidly draws you, in provided you are prepared to engage the brain as well as the heart. All of this is on show in I’m Not Running, which also features a couple of bravura lead performances from Sian Brooke and Alex Hassell (and fine supporting turns from especially Joshua McGuire and Amaka Okafor, Brigid Zengeni and Liza Sadovy).

Yet it is not an entirely convincing play and, IMHO, falls short of vintage political Hare seen in the likes of Gethsemane, or The Power of Yes and Stuff Happens, and falls well short of the likes of The Secret Rapture, Plenty or, on a similar theme, The Absence of War. This, I think reflects, the slightly awkward conjunction of the personal connection and political rivalry of the main characters Pauline Gibson and Jack Gould, and the censure of a Labour party, (always a favourite target for Hare), which smacks more of the Blair years than the current incarnation. There is surely much that Mr Hare could have criticised about the current Opposition in his play, notably its enabling of Brexit, but here we are asked to look instead at how the party machine locks out “outsiders”, specifically a woman, in favour of well-connected, “professional” politicians, with the NHS as the idealogical battleground. Whilst the points it makes, and this being David Hare, the way it makes those points, are elegant and indubitably valid, the absence of Corbyn, Momentum and the B-word, seems curious.

The play opens with a media scrum ahead of an announcement from Pauline Gibson (Sian Brooke) and her adviser Sandy Mynott (Joshua McGuire) about whether she will stand as leader of the Labour Party. We then flashback to Newcastle University in 1997 and the Blair landslide when Pauline, a headstrong medical student, and boyfriend, hesitant would-be lawyer, Jack (Alex Hassell), are splitting up. Pauline, whilst dealing with the fall-out from her alcoholic mother Blaise, (a savvy, though somewhat wasted, performance from Liza Sadovy), enters Parliament as an Independent defending her Corby hospital from closure. She crosses paths again with Jack, scion of an intellectual heavyweight of the Left, who is now a smooth careerist rising up the Parliamentary ranks tasked with NHS reform. Principles vs pragmatism, single issue vs party machine, popularity with party and public, institutional sexism in politics, all are explored against the backdrop of the smouldering passions of the voluble couple.

It is still a testament to Mr Hare’s dramatic gift that the arguments can be interrogated without any hint of cumbersome exposition and that the characters he recruits to the cause still come across as real, if not in both cases here, as completely likeable. Director Neil Armfield could hardly do more to tease out the detail of the text and Ralph Myers rotating blank room set doesn’t get in the way (though there are occasions when the actors look a little lost when standing at the wings of the Lyttleton stage).

Sian Brooke’s Pauline contains enough distanced vulnerability to set alongside her self-righteousness and Alex Hassell’s fly-by-night Jack convinces as he treads the path littered with compromise that he was ordained to follow, but the Tourist couldn’t escape the feeling that this was all a little bit David Hare by numbers and that the couple, even with the supporting characters, seemed to be operating in a bubble devoid of external context. Still well worth seeing though for me James Graham’s Labour of Love was a far more entertaining, and insightful, take on similar territory.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic review ****

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

The Old Vic Theatre, 27th March 2017

Sorry I have come a bit late to the party here both in seeing this and then setting down a few thoughts. I am still a Stoppard virgin so you must treat me gently and this is the first time I have seen this.

So how did I fare? Well much like Travesties a few weeks earlier I was left breathless and in awe of Mr Stoppard’s dazzling intellect and wit. I reckon a few more of his plays and a few more years and I might crack this but for now baby steps. When this came on to the scene 50 years ago it must have been a revelation for its early audiences. My near contemporary arrival in the world left less of a mark – still my mum was probably pleased to see me.

To interrogate the nature of how we see events and construct meaning, to question the role of chance, to ask why we make the choices that we do and to examine¬†notions of free will and mortality, and to do this in the context of a play itself that is genuinely full of laughs (not just knowing sniggers) and a plot of sorts that moves forward, and is based on possibly the most famous play ever which itself deals with not dissimilar questions – it’s a miracle of sorts that the whole thing doesn’t just collapse under its own contradictions and ambition.

Now that doesn’t mean there weren’t a few “whoosh over the head” moments for me and it can be hard work to keep up even with the Hamletian anchor. Stoppard properly f*cks about with your head. But for me it yields a theatrical pleasure from all the hard work that is not replicated elsewhere. To think perchance¬†to laugh.

I can’t imagine any improvements to David Leveaux’s production and Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire seem a perfect match as our hapless heroes. McGuire in particular, who carries more than I realised of the text, is very strong and you can practically hear his brain whirring through the gears as tries to solve the puzzles that he and his chum have to face. And David Haig, who teetered perilously close to annoying in Blue/Orange at the Young Vic with his singular bluster, was just right I think as the Player.

So whilst I may have started with an air of cultural obligation in seeing these two Stoppard plays in recent weeks I come out persuaded and look forward to the next adventure. If you agree, all well and good but if you don’t I completely understand. It might pass the Pete and Bernie’s Philosophical SteakHouse pretension test for me – but I suspect there are a whole bunch of people who secretly hold fast to an “emperor’s new clothes” view and I can see why.

Still packed houses at the Old Vic for properly ambitious theatre must be a good thing. Next up Woyzeck.