The Remains of the Day at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre review *****

The Remains of the Day

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, 13th April 2019

Right all you good citizens of Derby, Salisbury, Cambridge and Bristol. There is still time for you to book tickets to see this excellent adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s celebrated novel The Remains of the Day. A very well crafted script by Barney Norris, (just the fellow to write pensive studies of “Englishness” based on his previous work), in an excellent production from one of our premier touring companies Out of Joint, thoughtfully directed by Christopher Haydon, (latterly of the Gate Theatre), with a pair of sparkling central performances from Stephen Boxer and Niamh Cusack.

Now the Tourist has never been much good at reading. Nothing ever seems to sink in without repeated exposure. Especially with fiction. And especially with fiction he read in his youth. A vague recollection of the big picture, a few specific episodes and a general “I like that author”. Not like the SO who can trot out plot, character, meaning, style, context, like an A* student even for things she read decades ago. Maybe this low level intimidation is what stops the Tourist picking up a book except when on hols. That and spending too much time at the theatre and writing this stupid f*cking blog.

Anyway you probably. like the Tourist. know this work more from the 1993 Merchant-Ivory film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson as Stevens and Kenton, both quietly upstaged by Peter Vaughan as Stevens Senior. Nominated for 8 Oscars, won none. Mind you that was the year the Academy rewarded Spielberg for Schindler’s List. Fair dos. I see that one Harold Pinter wrote an original screenplay for the film when Mike Nichols was slated to direct. Bits of Harold’s work made it to the end but he removed himself from the credits. Might have been a very different film with him and Mr Nichols in the driving seat.

Instead I remember the central, unrequited, relationship between the stiff Hopkins and the droll Thompson, the look and feel of the thing, (Merchant-Ivory being allowed to film in any toff’s house at the time such was their fame), and the almost elegiac take on the history under examination, the 1950’s and the 1930’s. Yes the politics were there but not as sharply delineated as in this play. Class, deference, knowing one’s place, belief in the wisdom of the elite, are common to both treatments but I was far more struck in this treatment by the desire of many in the aristocratic class in the 1930’s to broker a deal with Hitler, to appease, than I was in the film. And specifically the reasons why, the guilt at having inflicted so much economic misery on Germany post First World War, as well as the memory of the human carnage of that war, and, of course their anti-semitism, which motivated them to pursue this course.

It may just be that, like my reading of the book, I just don’t remember the film very well. Which is salient given that The Remains of the Day is a memory book/film/play. Or maybe more specifically a memory of a history, personal and political, book/film/play. To solve the “problem” of butler Stevens remembering the events at Darlington Hall in the run up to the Second World War, (as he undertakes the road trip in 1958 to pay the visit to the ex-housekeeper, Miss Kenton, prompted by her letter), the film makes generous use of flashbacks. And a cast of thousands.

Well maybe not quite but tons of extras and actors of the calibre of James Fox, Christopher Reeve, Hugh Grant, Michael Lonsdale and Tim Pigott-Smith to fill all the named characters, (trust me, a lot of people found their way to Darlington Hall). Even the minor parts are filled by the likes of Ben Chaplin, Patrick Godfrey, Peter Eyre, Pip Torrens and, the go-to actor for Germans in British films, Wolf Kahler. Blimey even a young Lena Headey, Cersei in you know what, gets a look in. Basically if you could do plummy or gor-blimey, and you weren’t engaged elsewhere, you got a part in the film.

No such technology of budget for Out of Joint and Messrs Haydon and Norris. So a fair bit of character pruning, some adroit exposition to incorporate those written out, and extensive doubling. But this is not just any old “exit Act 1, turn up as someone else in Act 2 with new costume and wig” stagecraft. This is seamlessly executed, on stage choreography, a hat, a coat, a pipe, to turn a cast the cast of 8 into the staff and guests of pre war Darlington Hall and the locals Stevens meets on his pint-sized odyssey of self-discovery. This means that the ghosts of the past are always present. Very clever and very easy to follow.

Stevens devotion to duty even in the face of the shocking demand by Lord Darlington to sack the two Jewish maids, Kenton teasing Stevens about his book, Stevens carrying on his duties even as his father dies and Mme Dupont, (a gender change to accommodate the casting pyrotechnics), whinges about her feet, Reginald’s increasing awareness of what his godfather is up to, Stevens disowning the past in his conversations with Dr Carlisle, the mocking Stevens is forced to undergo from “Sir David” the composite collaborator with Lord D, the radical conservatism, or conservative radicalism, espoused by everyman Morgan in the pub and, of course, the extraordinarily moving scenes between Kenton, or Mrs Benn later on, and Stevens, as the happiness they might might have had slips through their fingers. You flipping noodle Stevens.

All of these scenes are memorable, providing plenty of minor key drama, but the best things about the play are the performances of Mr Boxer and Ms Cusack. I’ll stick my neck out here and say that for me, and remember this is based on my faulty memory, they capture the essence of Stevens and Kenton more that Hopkins and Thompson in the film. The ten year age gap between these actors seems more convincing than the 20 years of the film. Mr Boxer seems to me to bring out more of the interior life of Stevens, the way he buries the emotions that he plainly has in the cause of maintaining the dignified exterior he believes is required of him, the way he is puzzled by, but still craves, Miss Kenton’s attention. Ms Cusack seems more playful as Kenton, holding back the regret until the very end. the structure of the play lends more prominence to the conversations in the pub and the way this changes Stevens’s perspective.

The directness of the political dilemma, and its flawed morality, is far more pointed here than in the film. And the reliability of Steven’s recollection is more nuanced as in the book, (yes I took a quick peep again whilst writing this). In fact generally Mr Norris seems to capture the essence of the book in a, er, more reliable way that the period-drama aesthetic of the film does.

The rest of the cast step up. Miles Richardson captures the naivety, in life as well as politics, of Lord Darlington and the middle class bonhomie of Dr Carlisle. Sadie Shimmin offers us an uncomplicated pub host in Mrs Taylor alongside the hauteur of fascist sympathiser Mme Dupont. Edward Franklin warms to his task as the bespectacled, conscientious godson Reginald, (drawn from the film not the book), Patrick Toomey is the arrogant American politician Lewis (and, I think Farraday, Steven’s current employer) and Pip Donaghy marks out Stevens Senior decline. Top marks to Stephen Critchlow though as he he shifts from Morgan to the real “villain” of the piece the anti-semitic Sir David.

I see a lot of plays but this is one of the more satisfying I have seen so far this year. “Knowing” the content helps of course, and, from a personal geographical perspective a hop to Guildford, and the fine design and accumulated history of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, was no inconvenience. I get that Out of Joint rightly values its touring credentials and I am grateful to the Royal and Derngate, (on my list to visit), and the Oxford Playhouse for co-commissioning Barney Norris’s script. But I am stunned that this hasn’t secured, as far as I know, secured a berth in London.

The familiar story, the quality of the acting, the script and the production, (Lily Arnold’s set is another stand-out as is Elena Pena’s sound design), the themes it explores and their contemporary echoes – the dangers of passivity and nostalgia – all would suggest to me that this would pack them in in a mid sized West End venue. There is plenty for the customary theatre demographic to enjoy, (they certainly did on this Saturday afternoon), but, with the right tone, I reckon some younger folk could be persuaded. I know that Out of Joint’s last major production, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, had a false start, understandably, before eventually gathering plaudits as the Royal Court but most of the rest of their historical efforts have popped up in the capital. This, whilst still posing some thorny questions, looks to be a far more commercial proposition than many of those predecessors.

Barney Norris plainly says that “the play must be unlike the book or the film or it shouldn’t exist” in the programme. Fair dos. But, whilst its structure and perspective match his manifesto, there is more than enough of both earlier manifestations to justify your attendance should you know them.

Over to you nice people at ATG.


Love Lies Bleeding at the Print Room Coronet review **

Love Lies Bleeding

Print Room Coronet, 28th November 2018

You probably now Don DeLillo as the US author of provocative, existential contemporary fiction such as White Noise, Libra and Underworld. Well he also writes plays. Five of them to date apparently. IMHO he shouldn’t. They have been compared to Beckett and Pinter. They’re not.

The Print Room under AD Anda Winters has set itself up as a purveyor of knotty, off beat theatre with a pronounced literary bent. This puts it at the more challenging end of the London theatrical entertainment spectrum but then again who wants to watch Bat Out Of Hell every day (or any day come to think of it). When the USP delivers, The Outsider or Babette’s Feast come to mind, it can match the best that the London fringe can offer. When it tries a little too hard then it can turn into a long evening, even in the surprisingly comfortable seats of this shabby chic auditorium.

Love Lies Bleeding was firmly in the latter camp I am afraid. Alex Macklin (Joe McGann no less) is a craggy American land artist now in a persistent vegetative state after a second stroke. His son Sean (Jack Wilkinson) and second wife Toinette (Josie Lawrence) come to visit him and his fourth wife Lin (Clara Indrani) who is caring for him out in his desert hideaway. They discuss whether to accelerate his death. There are a couple of flashbacks with Alex pre-stroke. Oh and an extended metaphor about amaranthus caudatas for you biologists. That’s it.

Whilst it succeeds in its aim of getting us to reflect on the meaning of life, its worth, the question of how life should end, what constitute mercy and the like, we have so much time, even in the 80 minutes or so running time, to chew on these questions that, frankly, the case for killing him off early becomes overwhelming. Hard to fault the acting of the cast, the directing of Jack McNamara, an advocate for DeLillo’s plays (who was the hand behind The Fisherman at the Arcola, which was the polar opposite in terms of dramatic momentum), the inventive set of Lily Arnold and the video work of Andrezj Goulding. But these are paper thin characters in a plot devoid of narrative given to meandering reminiscing and repetitive philosophising. It kicks off with an interesting premise, Alex describing a corpse on the subway, but the play then disappears into its own (dark) metaphysical tunnel. Bleak, wordy, “comedy” so black it isn’t even funny,

Not for me then. Mind you I wouldn’t mind staying in a beach house designed by Lily Arnold. Just not with these people.

Henry V at the Tobacco Factory Bristol review *****

geograph-2470375-by-Steve-Daniels

Henry V

Tobacco Factory Theatre, 22nd September 2018

Hello. I feel another bout of hyperbole coming on. It could just be that cumulative exposure is making me realise what the smarter punters and all the luvvies have known for hundreds of years, that nothing comes close to Shakespeare. It could be that my first visit to the Tobacco Factory has revealed a near perfect space, intimate but airy, in the round, with the right vibe of industrial chic, (and a good value curry in Thali next door). It could be that the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company, under retiring founder Andrew Hilton, continues to churn out top quality productions of the Bard, and a few others, as it has done since its founding in 2000. Last year’s Othello set the ball rolling for me (Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****) and I now intend to make a note in the diary for future pilgrimages to Bristol.

However I think the special ingredient in this particular production lies in the direction of Elizabeth Freestone. Ms Freestone is not afraid to offer up a contemporary slant on big Will, which usually works for me. Indeed she is the director behind Jeanie O’Hare’s composition of Queen Margaret at the Royal Exchange Manchester as we speak. Queen Margaret is one of Shakespeare’s best, no question, and I gather the magnificent jade Anouka is doing the business in the title role, though she will need to to get anywhere near the visceral walloping Sophie Okonedo gave the character in The Hollow Crown. (Can’t wait to see ms Okonedo as Cleo at the NT which the critics are loving).

What is patriotism? How to tread the line between the glorification and the senseless horror of war? What makes a “national hero” and how does this get weaved into a nation’s view of itself? How does Henry go from playboy Hal to warrior king? Is he just a cipher, whatever we want him to be? Sincere, scheming or both simultaneously? How to think about Katherine? Simpering pawn or power broker? A lot of good questions to ask at any time but especially when a bunch of utter cocks are playing dangerously fast and loose with our national identity. Once again Shakespeare shows he is the man for all ages when it comes to shedding light on the business of politics.

Lily Arnold’s blissfully simple set, four metal cages filled with stones, is put to work as battlefield and meeting hall, military and political space. A quartet of strip-lights, (recycled from Othello I’ll warrant), megaphone, radio and mic, suitcases and kit-bags, bottles of voddy, clip-boards, melancholic Union Jack and Tricolore. It’s all you really need. Less can so often be more in both the history plays and the tragedies. Go with the standard battle-dress/fatigues of so many modern-dress productions because it just works, but then add some twists to underscore the symbolism. A tutu dress for Mistress Quickly, a sharp suit for Cambridge and the King of France, a T shirt for King Henry, “the Artist formerly known as Prince” – I loved that – and turn Katherine into an imposing skinhead with elegant purple frock-coat suit and DM’s to match.

Cut out superfluous roles, in this interpretation, and double up (most intriguingly Chorus/Burgundy, Canterbury/King of France, Cambridge/Fluellen, York/Bourbon and Nym/Orleans). The armies are interchangeable after all. Lose a few of those pesky Dukes on both sides, Westmoreland, Exeter and York on the English side, with just Cambridge to face the traitorous music, and Bourbon and Orleans, and eventually Burgundy, on the French side. Make Exeter a skilled, female, negotiator. Slim down the English and French armies as well, and lose Queen Isabel and, in a real coup, merge the Dauphin into Katherine (and thus make her relationship with Orleans potentially very weird). And turn the Chorus into a detached, Bristolian, history lecturer.

Start off with a big party night choreographed to Boys Will Be Boys. Make Henry physically and metaphorically begin to stand tall as we move through the battles and make Katherine fight him and the English tooth and nail to the end. Don’t make too much fuss about those tennis balls. Let Henry whizz through the “breach speech”. Turn Katherine’s comedy English/French body part translation into a bitter and furious lament for lover Orleans which scares Henry (and us) witless. See Montjoy humiliated in defeat. Watch Henry only just keep it together after the brutal dispatch of Bardolph then wipe away the tears to receive the patronising French embassy. Ensure maximum ambivalence for our Harry as he wanders the camp for this is surely where the mantle of power is most keenly felt. Believe that Henry is probably bluffing when he threatens the citizens of Harfleur so belligerently.

The comedy relief of Pistol, Nym, Bardolph, Quickly and the Boy doesn’t fare quite as well in this production but their cannon fodder status, even as accident, certainly does. When Exeter reads out the list of the English dead at Agincourt the Boy is “none else of name” but we know his pointless sacrifice. A comparatively modest Harry, as here, makes Pistol’s over the top grandiosity less of a counterpoint. Fluellen is as annoying as ever though.

Now young Ben Hall has a bit of history here having played Henry V at the Guildhall when a student. He obviously has the genes for the theatre being the grandson of Sir Peter, nephew of Edward, (now moving on from Hampstead Theatre), and son of producer Christopher. You probably know him as the bespectacled tutor of Gerry and would be suitor of Margo in The Durrells off the telly, (a Hall family affair of sorts). He left an impression in the recent RSC Coriolanus but here he steps up and given a very interesting performance. Deliberatively tentative and awkward in parts, not entirely conversational but certainly not a master of oratory, with shaved head and red beard, he is believable as soldier if not, even in victory, as king. He spits out the lines too rapidly at the start but as Henry rises to the challenge so his speech becomes more measured, though never entirely, assured, as his disturbing “wooing” of Katharine at the end shows. He is not Olivier’s square-jawed hero, Branagh’s reborn statesman or Lester/Hytner’s war criminal hardman. Ben Hall’s Hal is constantly “wrestling with the moral responsibility of what it means to be a good leader” as Ms Freestone says in the programme. That crown certainly still lies uneasy on that head.

Offering us an androgynous Katherine who is near Henry’s equal in terms of destiny, passion, integrit,y as well as duplicity and xenophobia, with the same hair-cut to boot, is inspired. It is hard to take your eyes off Heledd Gywnn. She prowls the stage with an air of aggressive disdain, coming on all Joan of Arc like, (she popped up a decade, and one play, later). You just know that marriage isn’t going to solve anything at the end.

I was also drawn to the performances of Joanne Howarth as the patient Chorus who at one point is moved to tears, Alice Barclay’s largely composed Exeter, Luke Grant’s York/Bourbon, Zachary Powell’s Nym/Orleans, David Osmond’s verbose Fluellen and Melody Brown’s seasoned Gower. The re-gendering here doesn’t shout out. It just works.

Matthew Graham’s contrasting lighting design and Giles Thomas’s martial though still unobtrusive sound design all contributed to this thoughtful interpretation and experienced movement director Lucy Cullingford, even with this thinned out cast, was at the top of here game. There are some astonishing tableaux in this production, though nothing feels consciously artful. Elizabeth Freestone and Lily Arnold took visual inspiration from the battlefield art of WWI, (go see the Aftermath exhibition on now at Tate Britain for some of the most striking). I can see that and it also reminds us just how after this corner of Northern France has been the host of carnage. (Aftermath at Tate Britain review ****).

For me this is a near perfect production, considered, insightful, innovative and genuinely relevant. The company is drilled to perfection and battle hardy and it looks and moves beautifully. Like I say at the top, it could just be that nobody does it better than Will, but there are many ways to skin the ambiguity of this particular dramatic cat, and it still needs an inspired creative team and cast to bring the verse to life. STF is taking the production on tour so if you are lucky enough to be anywhere near these venues on these dates I implore you to get tickets.

9-13 Oct – Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough
16-20 Oct – Dukes Theatre, Lancaster
23-27 Oct – Malvern Theatres
30-3 Nov – Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
6 -10 Nov – Exeter Northcott

Rules For Living review at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***

120244

Rules For Living

Rose Theatre Kingston, 13th November 2017

The Tourist loves the Rose Theatre. Admittedly it helps that it is just a hop, skip and a jump, (well brisk walk), away from him. It does serve up some interesting theatre though, in amongst the music and comedy, and it does a grand job for the local community, notably for the young people. Understandably most of the theatre it produces is shared with other venerable regional houses but this makes eminent economic sense. And by and large, when it has nabbed something for itself, the decision has paid off. All this is achieved without an Artistic Director or commissions. Given the size of the place, 900 seats, comparable with the Lyttleton say, or the newly opened Bridge, this seems to me a laudable strategy.

Over the last couple of years we have had the excellent productions of My Brilliant Friend (My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****) and The Good Canary, the outstanding Junkyard, (Junkyard at the Rose Theatre review *****), which was a massive positive surprise for me and BD, a pretty good recent revival of The Real Thing (The Real Thing at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****), the ambitious and largely successful Wars of the Roses, a fine All My Sons and decent productions of Toast, The Herbal Bed, The Absence of War and Maxine Peake’s Beryl, (looks like the marvellous Maxine will end as good a writer as she is actor). Oh and we got the Play That Goes Wrong before the West End.

Coming up we have a new production of Much Ado About Nothing with Mel Giedroyc, (which means BD and LD are already signed up), as Beatrice, (dying to know who will be Benny), and a Don Carlos, (shared with the Nuffield Southampton and the Northcott Exeter so LS will be instructed to attend), in which Tom Burke, (you know him off War and Peace), will partner again with the fancy-dan Israeli director Gadi Roll. A bit of Schiller should wake up the good burghers of Kingston.

Right that’s the puff piece over. What about Rules for Living? This play by Sam Holcroft premiered at the National Theatre in 2015 where it was, by and large, well received. Brothers Matthew (Jolyon Coy, last seen by me in the somewhat different Little Eyolf at the Almeida) and Adam (Ed Hughes) have returned to the family home with, respectively, partner Carrie (Carlyss Peer) and wife Nicole (Laura Rodgers), for Christmas Day. Matriarch Edith (Jane Booker) is marshalling the troops ahead of her husband Francis (Paul Shelley) coming home from hospital, after, it transpires, having had a stroke. Last, and probably least since she is off stage in bed until the end, is Emma, the fragile daughter of Adam and Nicole.

So far, so middle class sitcom. Carrie is a flighty actress, who wants successful lawyer Matthew to pop the question. Adam was a cricketer whose career was ignominiously cut short when he froze on his Test debut. He is now a provincial solicitor. Adam and Nicole’s marriage is on the rocks. Dad Francis was a judge and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Under Edith’s direction the festive activities are run with military precision. 

Now the twist, because, as it stands, this cracker would be more Poundland than Waitrose.  Each of the characters has to follow a rule to govern their behaviour. This flashes up above Lily Arnold’s lovely doll’s house set. The detail of this rule is expanded through the play. So, for example, Matthew has to first sit down, and then eat, when he tells a porkie. I will refrain from trotting out the other rules in case you chance to see this. You get the picture I am sure. Ms Holcroft took learnings from cognitive behavioural therapy as the inspiration for the play and cleverly ensures each of the rules matches the characters faults, frustrations and personalities.

This then is the catalyst for the hilarious goings-on and, initially, at least, there is much humour in this conceit. Having weaved this into the plot though, Ms Holcroft then doesn’t see to entirely know what to do with it, so we veer off into a quasi-farce which ends with a food fight. Amusing yes, and it bears comparison with the master it emulates in Alan Ayckbourn, but it felt to me that the idea was too clever for the execution. The conceit boxed the characters in and didn’t leave enough room for the pathos which was needed to balance the farce.

The cast entered into the spirit of the venture with energetic enthusiasm, even Ed Hughes and Carlyss Peer whose “rule’ was the trickiest to pull off without being annoying. Jane Booker had the pick of some very funny lines and Paul Shelley, with no lines as such and precious little stage time, was a hoot. Laura Rodgers probably dug deepest though her “rule” gave the most opportunity for nuanced development. Director Simon Godwin, who has had some notable successes at the NT, especially his Twelfth Night, chose to anchor proceedings in the family home and play down the “game-show” context of the original production.

All in all then like a game of family charades. A really good idea when it kicks off but wearing after an hour or so. We are going to try doing massive jigsaw maps in silence for Xmas this year. Yo ho ho.

PS. I see that Sam Holcroft is writing a play for the Bridge based on the novel The Black Cloud by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle. Blimey. There will be some big ideas in that for sure.

 

 

Heather at the Bush Theatre review *****

heather-bush-theatre-2

Heather

Bush Theatre, 8th November 2017

For me the best plays take a very few ideas, or even better one idea, and then explore those ideas from multiple perspectives. If the writer loads up the text with too many ideas and messages, usually because he/she can and “it would be a shame not to” it can lead to confusion and drift in my simple mind. Less, as is so often the case, is usually more.

Thomas Eccleshare’s play Heather sticks fast to this rule and I loved it. It first popped up at the Tobacco Factory in 2014, again in Edinburgh I gather, and is now at the Bush for a couple more weeks. I implore you to see it.

I won’t detail the plot and central conceit as this would spoil the elegant twist. The play takes a children’s novel, in the vein of that wretched Potter (love JK Rowling, hate her work, sorry), as a springboard to explore the question of authorial identity and the relationship between art and the nature of the artist that creates it. We get to think about who we find acceptable in the creation of mainstream culture, how culture is represented, owned and marketed and whether rehabilitation is possible or desirable.

There is formal invention in the structure of the play, again I won’t delve too deeply to avoid spoiling, and some very clever and funny wordplay. The three parts of the play do not always entirely ring true but this is sort of the point in a play about how we should regard the representation of the written word. The two actors, Ashley Gerlach and Charlotte Mella, have the characters and the relationship between them absolutely nailed down, and the pace and rhythm of the production under Valentina Ceschi’s direction (she partners the writer in the Dancing Brick company) is spot on. As is the design of Lily Arnold.

That’s it. I won’t labour the point. Along with The End of Hope at the Soho Theatre this is the best way I can think of to spend an hour, (actually slightly less in the case of Heather), this weekend. Take a friend, discuss, eat.