Present Laughter at the Old Vic review ****

Present Laughter

Old Vic Theatre, 24th July 2019

Ummed and ahhed about whether to see this. On the one hand it was Andrew Scott in the lead as one of theatre’s most renowned hyper-narcissists, Gary Essendine. On the other hand it was a play from the dreadful old reactionary Noel Coward, albeit one of the quartet of classic comedies of manner, alongside Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, before he became a terribly bitter sh*t.

Its problem is that it is smugly celebrating the very world and people that it purports to subvert. Of course it racks up caustic barb after knowing aside, many of which are admittedly pretty funny, all wrapped up in a well constructed, if gentle, farce, but it never really gets under the skin of its main, or supporting, characters. Which leaves me more annoyed than intrigued by the central conceit, that an actor/artist, and now just “celebrity”, needs the constant validation of others to stave off lonely despair as he/she negotiates the divide between reality and performance. Message to Gary/Noel. Just because you know you are a needy prick doesn’t make you any less of a needy prick. (Essendine, famously, is an anagram of neediness).

Still my adoration for Mr Scott won out, alongside a hunch, correct as it turned out, that director Matthew Warchus would be unable to resist having some fun making explicit the covert sexual relationships at the centre of the original play. And, in the end, I was very glad I went. Still can’t quite shake off the indignation that informs the above opinion of the snobbish, bullying Coward and his plays, but I have to admit the layers that emerge through the play really did surprise me.

Rob Howell’s set and costumes offer a striking jazzy deco period vibe, (the plays dates from 1943), with a contemporary twist, which helped enliven the somewhat cardboard supporting characters, and Mr Warchus instructed them not to hold back. Which suits the talents of Enzo Cilenti as Joe, Gary’s forthright paramour and Suzie Toase as his cuckolded wife Helen. Abdul Salis is Gary’s agent Morris Dixon, natural comic Sophie Thomson as Gary’s protective assistant Monica, Joshua Hill as stalwart valet Fred whilst rising talent Kitty Archer turns in another vivacious performance as young devotee Daphne. Though these are all a little overshadowed by Luke Thallon as super-fan and aspiring playwright Roland Maule and, especially Indira Varma as Liz, Gary’s world-weary wife. Not quite everyone is putting on a performance but Gary certainly is not alone in the attention seeking stakes. And they obviously need him as much as he needs them.

The deliberately ropey plot is never over-accelerated, although a few gags are still painfully telegraphed. And somehow the genius stage actor that is Andrew Scott managed to extract pathos and ambiguity, beyond the sexual, from Gary’s egomania. He cannot quite escape the masturbatory-squared approach that Coward takes to his stage alter-ego but he does leave you guessing as to his true feelings and the idea of Gary/Coward as some sort of mid-life, man-child, he is in his early 40s, is perspicacious. And, once again, Mr Scott manages that rare trick of projecting his performance not just to the whole audience but also to each and every one of us, (at least that’s what I felt).

So message received and understood. Though I don’t think I will ever feel pity for those who choose celebrity. If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen. And definitely don’t stick your head in the oven whilst getting your publicist elicit public sympathy.

Pinter at Pinter 5 review ***

Pinter at Pinter Five: The Room/Victoria Station/Family Voices

Harold Pinter Theatre, 26th January 2019

The weakest of the Pinter at Pinter season IMHO though still well worth seeing. Not the fault of the cast with Rupert Graves in particular on top form. Maybe the plays; The Room is Pinter’s first ever play, from 1957 written for Bristol University students whilst Family Voices was written for the radio in 1981. Then again this hasn’t been a stumbling block in earlier instalments. The Room bears all the hallmarks of later Pinter and a setting familiar from the next, truly great, work, The Birthday Party, and the creative team have found a convincing way to transfer the imaginings of the lonely, young man holed up in a boarding house in Family Voices on to the stage.

The themes? As in the rest of the season Jamie Lloyd and his guest directors have intelligently drawn out links between the works in each instalment which have illuminated HP’s wider concerns: language, meaning, memory, (mis-)communication, anxiety, class, the state, power and control. The dislocation between what we think and what we do. There is often something “out there”, from past or present, beyond the claustrophobic confines of the setting, which might intrude in some way. The two main plays here share a similar marginal, transitory location, and a whiff of Proustian recollection, and contrast the present, minatory situation with some other “safer” time and place. (There must be some auteur somewhere who has the reputation and cojones to bring The Proust Screenplay to cinematic life).

In The Room, Jane Horrocks plays Rose Hudd, babbling nervously, mostly about how “warm” the room is compared to the “cold” outside, to her taciturn “husband” Bert (Rupert Graves) in their one room bedsit in a boarding house. We never quite know why she is so tense, ever after the jagged conversation she has with equally garrulous landlord Mr Kidd (Nicholas Woodeson) before and after Bert heads off in his “van”. Rose is then interrupted by Mr and Mrs Sands (Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi) who are ostensibly looking for a flat and, specifically, the landlord. They describe a blind, black man, Riley, (Colin McFarlane) they have seen in the basement who then enters to deliver a message from Rose’s “father”. Bert returns, rapidly describes his trip out in a sexually aggressive way, and violently turns on Riley. See what I mean? It couldn’t be written by anyone else right? It took HP just two days to create it and thereby change the course of world theatre and subsequently give employment to countless academics. No longer did a playwright have to “know” where his or her characters came from or where they were going.

In Family Voices Luke Thallon is given the task of impersonating the various characters which inhabit the boarding house in the “letters” he composes in his head to his mother, an on stage Jane Horrocks, who complains that her own letters to him are unanswered. These include a sexually forward young woman and a threatening bloke called, wait for it, Riley. Also present here, from beyond the grave, is the young man’s father, whose death hangs over the mother-son relationship, played by Rupert Graves. No major key ending here though.

Victoria Station played here as more “straight” comedy as Colin McFarlane plays a minicab controller growing ever more exasperated by the gnomic responses of driver “274” Rupert Graves. The driver is plainly marooned, lost both physically and mentally, but his fear is played down in this interpretation.

Interestingly the audience at the matinee the Tourist attended, (a packed house showing just how well received the season has been, albeit with a bit of judicious re-pricing), was most animated in Victoria Station. Unsurprising given the laughs, but the rapt attention that characterised say, Moonlight, Landscape or A Slight Ache didn’t seem to quite be there. The difference I think lies in the direction. Pinter Five was given to Patrick Marber. Mr Marber is an excellent writer, especially his original work, and can be an inspirational director, notably of his own adaptations. But Pinter needs something special to really take off and PM is not quite on a par with Jamie Lloyd IMHO. It’s something to do with pacing and rhythm I think though I have no idea how to put its into words. Mind you PM got the HP seal of approval directly so what do I know.

Still even as probably the least convincing of the season, there was still much to feast upon, (enjoy isn’t really the right way to describe it), and some first class acting from Ms Horrocks and Mr Graves. Can’t wait for Betrayal.

Cock at the Minerva Theatre review ****

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Cock

Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 10th October 2018

Another addition to my collection of Mike Bartlett plays. I have professed my admiration for his work on numerous occasions on these pages. You see he just writes gripping drama. Hyper-real, sometimes going a bit over the top, but that is what you pay your money to see. Or at least I think you should. He can range widely across subjects, big and small. And he experiments with form. All in all probably the best of the current generation of British dramatists, of which there is currently a very fine crop. Just need a revival of 13 which I missed on its first outing.

Cock is a comedy which focusses on the machinations of the somewhat weak-willed John (Luke Thallon) as he attempts to choose between his two lovers M (Matthew Needham) and W (Isabella Laughland). It is a sort of companion piece to Bull, written a few years later, about workplace bullying. Both examine the “games that people play” and were kind of inspired by bull-fighting (and cock-fighting) which MB discovered were still very much alive when he visited Mexico City. There are no scene headings or stage directions or props in Cock, only lines between each of the “bouts” between characters (here marked with an electronic “bell”). MB stipulates that there should be “no mime”. He evens leaves out full stops and commas to express natural speech rhythms and inserts blanks to create equivalent pauses. So all your are left with is 2, then 3, then 4 actors circling each other and tumbling out the lines. Just the verbal sparring if you will. Of which there is plenty. It sounds tricksy but it is anything but as MB cannot help putting the right words, at the right time, into his characters. Emotions, as in his other works, are heightened by the formal structure. Everything is clarified.

It transpires that John was pretty young when he moved in with M. M is a bit of an emotional bully but when John wants out after seven years it’s pretty clear M is devastated. Especially when John falls in love with a woman. W doesn’t care that, until now, John has been gay. She pushes John into choosing when M invites them to, what you can probably divine, an “awks” dinner party. Especially when M’s Dad F (Simon Chandler) turns up.

There are plenty of killer comic lines but what MB really nails is the constant, and often brutal, ebb and flow of coercion and pleading that all four employ to get what they want out of the situation. John is agonised by having to decide between M and W, and by implication his sexual identity, bisexual not sitting comfortably, but he is also loving the attention. M is all over the words “emotional blackmail” but he does not want to lose John. W appears more reasonable but she is still determined to “win”. The world has moved on and become more fluid in terms of sexual identity but MB’s play still plainly shows that there are personal costs (and benefits) to be negotiated in all relationships. Monogamy exerts a powerful hold on all of us it seems. I would stab a guess that Cock is the sort of play Pierre de Marivaux would be writing if he were alive today.

This is I think the first time I have been party to Kate Hewitt’s direction. If there is a better way of showing off this play, here in the round, I can’t imagine it. I see she is in the chair for Jesus Hopped The A Train at the Young Vic next year. Excellent. I have espyed the Matthew Needham at the Almeida, and after this he will reprise his role as John (no relation) in Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke at the Duke of York’s and Luke Thallon stood out in MB’s Albion at the same house and, I gather, in the Young Vic The Inheritance. I’ve only seen Isabella Laughland on the telly. Anyway even a chump like me can see all three actors are destined for even greater things. I can’t imagine Georgia Lowe will get an easier gig than this in terms of design, a red square on the floor in this red auditorium, but it still is the exact right solution.

With Press, his journalism drama, now over, until the next time presumably, I can’t wait for MB’s next work. I loved Press, obvs, most notably because it seemed to wind up many members of the fourth estate because “that’s not how a newspaper works”. Numbnuts. That’s the point. It’s a drama. Which uses your grubby, noble and powerful profession to shine a light on contemporary mores. Not a documentary. Which is also not “real” and constructed. As is your own “reality”. And your stories.

 

Albion at the Almeida Theatre review ****

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Albion

Almeida Theatre, 21st October 2017

Now we all know Mike Bartlett is a great writer. If you don’t know his stage work then, if you love your telly in the UK, you will likely have come across his mini-series Doctor Foster. So you will know that he can write a totally gripping story and that he is not averse in taking liberties with plot construction in order to generate a few outrageous WTF moments. Now it helps that this series was blessed with some top-drawer acting talent in Suranne Jones, (up next in a revival of Frozen alongside Jason Watkins and Nina Sosanya at Theatre Royal Haymarket in what looks like casting made in heaven), the chameleonic Bertie Carvel (I would watch anything he does), Adam James (ditto and who is a Mike Bartlett veteran) and the gifted Victoria Hamilton.

And it is Ms Hamilton who takes the leading role of Audrey Walters in Albion. She is, quite simply, brilliant. I will get to the play shortly but just let me wax lyrical about Victoria Hamilton for a bit. Her Audrey is sharp, snappy, curt, brusque, tactless. A seemingly detached mother. A wife who takes her (second) husband for granted. A friend who has no interest in the life of her oldest chum. An alpha businesswoman. Yet she is also very funny, and, as we increasingly find out, vulnerable. At the heart of Mr Bartlett’s rich text it seems that Audrey, in all her contradiction, is all of us, or more specifically, is this country, whatever it might be. I guess the clue was always in the title but Albion is an allegory which takes a substantial domestic family drama as the mechanism to explore issues of national identity, place and heritage. The Brexit convulsions ooze out of the very earth, of which there is plenty on stage, though the accursed word is never mentioned.

It is a bloody marvellous role and an equally marvellous performance. You may have seen Ms Hamilton in other roles on the telly, maybe in costume dramas and the like, and I envy you if you have seen her on the stage, for she is an infrequent board-treader. Her stage reputation is immense though. I can now see why. I have no right to ask, as someone who sits around on his lardy arse most days, but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE Victoria, come back to the stage soon when this one is over. Mind you if this doesn’t get a West End transfer, I’ll be gobsmacked (though I can see some logistical challenges).

Panegyric over. What about the play? Our Audrey has left her successful “home-stuff” business in the hands of the minions. She has bought a pile she knew from childhood in rural Oxfordshire. and left London behind. It is the garden that matters to her though. It had been created by a certain Mr Weatherbury and was of immense national importance. It has gone to rack and ruin. Audrey wants to sink some of cash into restoring it to its former glory (see where we are going ….), and create a memorial to the dead of the Great War, and, we quickly learn, her son James, who was pointlessly killed in one of the recent wars. With her come her browbeaten, though wryly optimistic, husband Paul (a spot on Nicholas Rowe) and self-absorbed, millenial daughter Zara (an anxious Charlotte Hope) who wants to write and would rather be in London. Audrey inherits a couple of retainers in husband/gardener and wife/housekeeper Matthew (Christopher Fairbank, hard to imagine anyone else better suited to the part) and Cheryl (Margot Leicester, who shows perfect comic timing) but they are getting on a bit so Audrey, somewhat tactlessly, recruits ambitious Polish cleaning entrepreneur Krystyna (Edyta Budnik), and the rather enigmatic local boy Gabriel (a compelling Luke Thallon) to help . Our cast is completed by Anna (Vinette Robinson, who convinces in what is a tricky role), who is James’s grieving girlfriend, Katherine Sanchez (Helen Schlesinger), very successful writer, best friend of Audrey since university and overt “remainer”, and conservative neighbour, Edward (Nigel Betts).

No commentary on what happens next. I insist you see for yourself. There are though some moments of very high drama as the tensions between the characters unfold. Some of these scenes push us to the edge of credulity but, as with Mr Bartlett’s other work, he gets away with it because it is so damnably thrilling. 

Rupert Goold’s direction doesn’t stand in the way of any of this, indeed positively encourages it, and it gives his lighting (Neil Austin), sound (Gregory Clarke) and movement (Rebecca Frecknall) colleagues room to have some real fun. All the action is set in the red garden “room” of Weatherbury’s original design. Miriam Buether’s “thrust” forward design is a cracker. A raised oval lawn with trusty oak tree and seat at the back and with a bed all around which is transformed halfway through. This England indeed. 

If the set up above sounds like a certain Mr Anton Chekhov you’d be right. It unashamedly has Cherry Orchard crawling all over it, and, greedy bugger that he is, he even takes a few feathers out of The Seagull. Why not though? Chekhov being the perfect template for showcasing the intersection of the personal and the political, the delineation of class, the weight of history and the vice of nostalgia. The garden itself is a quintessential metaphor for change. We English have always been good at gardens and don’t we just love ’em. Chekhov meshes comedy, tragedy and banality whilst hurling in a few bombshells. Mr Bartlett does the same.

Into this set-up then is layered a whole series of perspectives of what “we”, have been, are now, and, possibly, are going to be, now “we” have taken this unprecedented step. The short answer, if you were to ask me, is that “we” have been monumentally stupid. Mr Bartlett, as you might expect, is rather less dogmatic, and offers ambiguity (and indeed his greatest nod to Chekhov), at the end. He reminds us that even dear old Blighty is regularly convulsed by clashes between those who welcome the future, and those who cling to the past. Because, in some way or other, we all embrace this dichotomy.

The text swirls with meaning. Perhaps a little too much. This is what holds me back from a full-on JFG 5* review. Direction, staging, performances – all tip top. Garden as metaphor, check. Chekhov as inspiration, check. Formal structure, check. Narrative arc, check. Plot and characters, check. Ideas and meaning, a qualified check. Not the subject, no way, nothing right now more important could appear on a London stage. Just that maybe a few of the threads can could have been pulled a little more tightly together.

Minor criticism. This is still a hefty slab of theatre which captures the zeitgeist. Maybe not quite as immediately remarkable as the last combination of Mike Bartlett and Rupert Goold at this very venue, King Charles III. But it may well turn out to have even greater resonance as, brace yourselves, the impact of this Brexit caper has only just begun.