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.

Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic review ****

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Fanny and Alexander

Old Vic Theatre, 4th April 2017

I WILL USE BLOCK CAPITAL FOR EMPHASIS AS WE SLIGHTLY UNHINGED KEYBOARD WARRIORS ARE WONT TO DO.

FOR JUST £12 YOU CAN GO AND SEE ONE OF THE REMAINING PERFORMANCES OF FANNY AND ALEXANDER.

That’s right. All seats for the last week of the run are just £12. Even if you hated Ingmar Bergman and this was a load of tosh that would be a bargain. As it happens you shouldn’t and certainly not this, his most approachable story, and it isn’t. There are some 3* reviews for sure, mostly griping about how it doesn’t match up to the film. OF COURSE IT BLOODY DOESN’T.

Bergman took 6 months to shoot it. After 6 months of planning with art director Anna Asp. It is, in the full version, over 5 hours long. There are over 60 speaking parts and more extras than Brexiters in London. It occupies two worlds, reality and something removed from it. It looks beautiful, that’s why it got it’s Oscars. (I have a mind to persuade LD to spend a year in Uppsala University based solely on the film). There are over 1500 costumes. In short he chucked the entire kitchen sink at it, (there may have been several sinks, I will need to schedule another viewing to check). If Bergman had entered it in the category it would have won Best Picture, instead of the eventual winner in 1984, Terms of Endearment. The film about the making of the film is a great film. The autographical material at the heart of the film was enough for Bergman to spawn further work on film and TV.

It is a fairy tale of sorts, but with some real world joy and cruelty. It is mythic in scope, but at its centre are two families. It nods, sometimes vigorously, to Ibsen, Strindberg and Shakespeare. It might be Oedipal. It skewers religion. It sticks two fingers up to authority. In short there is an awful lot going on her. And all within the confines of a conventional Victorian melodrama (sort of). It’s a Top 100 film, certainly, Top 20 probably, and definitely a Top 10 foreign language film for me (though these lists don’t actually exist so beware the hyperbole).

It was never going to be fully captured on stage. Stephen Beresford’s adaptation is not the first time a dramatist has tried to capture Bergman on the stage, and it won’t be the last. Our friend Ivo van Hove has a particular penchant for the Bergman adaptation (After the Rehearsal at the Barbican Theatre review ***). It isn’t easy. I wonder if the best director of Bergman on stage might have been Ingmar Bergman, theatre director (I don’t know if he ever put his own work on stage).

Anyway wisely it seems to me, Matthew Warchus in commissioning the project, Mr Beresford in adapting this sublime material and Max Webster as director have plotted a course through “adult fairy tale” and family saga, and not got too hung up on all the rest. If you just accept the production for what it is I believe you will be, if not maybe transfixed, at least fully engaged by the essentially simple story.

Tom Pye’s set elegantly conjures up the Ekdahl apartment in the theatre, all crimson, before shrinking and transforming into the monochrome “prison” of the Bishop’s palace in the second half. There is constant movement, and a lot of scene changes, but this  brings the required vibrancy and energy to proceedings. The magic works, in a kind of pantomime-ish way. The plot is fleshed out by announcements side-stage which accompany the set-piece meals. Dialogue, where it is not lifted moreorless intact from the film, is snappy and to the point. Mr Beresford has found some real humour. The characters are only really sketched out but no matter, as there is enough to support plot, and the sketches are balanced across the key roles.

Of course this approach leaves a lot off the table. Penelope Wilton’s Helena might have stepped in from a Wildean comedy, Michael Pennington’s Isaak from a certain Shakespeare play, Sargon Yelda’s Oscar is a little earnest (especially as ghost) and it is hard to understand why Catherine’s Walker’s Emilie would marry Bishop Edvard. Kevin Doyle, for my money (I paid more than £12 remember), actually gets more into, and out of, Vergerus, than the rest of the cast, conveying something of his torment. The infidelities of Jonathan Slinger’s Gustav Adolf are played for laughs, though he got applause when he let rip into the Bishop, and Thomas Arnold as Carl and Karina Fernandez as Lydia are morose and not much else. You will need to resist the urge to boo and hiss Lolita Chakrabarti and Annie Firbank’s when they morph into the Vergerus ladies. Gloria Obianyo gets a bit of the requisite strangeness out of Ismael.

I have to say though that young Misha Handley, who was Alexander at my showing, was superb, from his very first solo scene in front of the curtains. It is easily enough to praise “child” actors, though it often comes across as patronising. I can’t tell you if his three colleagues are as good, but if they are then they must all keep up with drama school. OK so the lines flowed naturally from the drama but I couldn’t see the acting here. This could never be a world seen through his eyes alone, how would that be possible without close-ups and POV shots, but the production and his performance still made it feel as if it was, when the action really kicked in, anchored in his perspective.

So ignore the reviews, relax and be carried away by this story of good and evil. Then see the film, long version, and realise what was, not missing, but different. The play is still well over 3 hours, though with a couple of intervals, and especially in the second and third “acts” when things hot up, it never feels like it. It’s resolutely not a “memory” play, and it can’t replicate the camera’s eye. But it is enjoyable and if you go in with the right attitude, you will be sumptuously entertained. It certainly delivers on more of its promise than other recent productions at the Old Vic.

P.S. I see Stephen Beresford comes from Dartmouth. Adding further to my list of “important people from South Devon”.