Noises Off at the Lyric Hammersmith review ****

Noises Off

Lyric Hammersmith, 24th July 2019

Noises Off will transfer to the Garrick Theatre from 27th September.

It is a generally accepted truism in luvvie-world that Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is one of the funniest plays. An opinion with which the Tourist heartily concurs. Alongside Lysistrata and The Frogs, most of Shakespeare’s comedies, Volpone and The Alchemist, Tartuffe, Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters (Richard Bean’s version will appear on screen again on 26th September and a revival is due at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch), Uncle Vanya, Loot, The Real Thing, Serious Money, Dead Funny, The Habit of Art, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Hangmen and The Play That Goes Wrong (whose makers have, not unreasonably, made a few quid following Michael’s Frayn’s lead). There’s probably a fair few more. But I haven’t seen them yet.

So I wasn’t about to miss this revival at the Lyric. And nor should you when it transfers to the West End. You know the drill or can easily find out. We see a touring performance of a sex farce, Nothing On, by one “Robin Housemonger”, or more precisely three performances of its first act: first in technical rehearsal at midnight the night before opening in Weston-Super-Mare, then from backstage a month later in Ashton-under-Lyme and finally from front of stage in Stockton-on-Tees at the end of the run. This is not an entirely happy troupe and the relationships between the cast, director and technical staff are, shall we say, complicated. Especially when their vanities, problems, passions and tantrums bleed into the performance. To, as the cliche goes, “hilarious effect”. So we get comedy driven by character, (notably the gap between on and off stage personas), situation, plot, wit and spectacle, through farce, slapstick and props. It is a treat for eyes, ears and also brain, as there is abundant comic logic just below the surface treats.

It requires immense skill to pull off. Not just from the cast but also from the creative team. To deliver a play within a play that doesn’t actually get pulled off. Michael Frayn completed the play in 1982 though the idea first came to him when watching one of his own farces, The Two of Us, from backstage in 1970. As with all of Mr Frayn’s plays, serious or comedy, he doesn’t stop where other writers might have done. He goes on buffing and polishing to create something close to perfection. Which I would contend he did, precisely, first time round here. though it hasn’t stopped him reworking it for subsequent revivals, and, as he reveals in the programme, actually editing out some unfortunate misprints which appeared in the original. Which is itself pretty amusing in a meta sort of way.

I can’t pretend this is quite up to the very high mark set by Lindsay Posner’s revival at the Old Vic in 2012. But it comes close. As it happens all the family saw that including LD, only 10 at the time. It is still, she says, the funniest thing she has ever seen, (along with the Mischief Theatre portfolio, so if you are tempted to take the nippers along don’t hesitate. In this production Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin directs which is helpful since he is the master of the high octane. Max Jones’s set does exactly what is required, front and back, as does Amy Mae’s lighting and Lorna Munden’s sound (which is at is most accomplished in the second act when the actors are effectively silent). And Complicite’s movement director, Joyce Henderson, shows why she is one of the best in the business.

Now it was pretty hot in the Lyric the night we went. Which wasn’t great for MIL who had to leave at the interval with the SO. A shame because I would have valued her opinion, since she is even more parsimonious with her praise that the SO. Still a thumbs up for the first half. It also meant that Daniel Rigby, as “leading man” Garry Lejeune probably lost a few pounds given how much he physically had to do. I was also taken with Lloyd Owen’s take on his namesake director, the supercilious predator Lloyd Dallas and with Jonathan Cullen’s take on the neurotic Frederick Fellowes. Frankly though a cast that includes the likes of Meera Seal as Dotty Otley who bankrolls the fictitious play, Simon Rouse as dipso lurvie Selsdon Mowbray and Debra Gillett as the maternal Belinda Blair, as well as Amy Morgan as the dramatically challenged Brooke Ashton, Lois Chimimba as put upon ASM Poppy and Enyi Okoronkwo as the even more put upon SM Tim, was always going to get this right, which with a couple of hutches they did handsomely.

Noises Off premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith, directed by Michael Frayn’s chief collaborator Michael Blakemore. It went on to a five year run in the West End. I hope they make a few quid from this revival.

And that Rachel O’Riordan’s in augural season turns out to be as good as it looks. There are still prime seats for a tenner at the previews of Solaris, Love, Love, Love and Antigone. Which frankly is a steal. The biggest bargain in London theatres anywhere right now IMHO.

The Son at the Kiln Theatre review ****

The Son

Kiln Theatre, 20th March 2019

After this, The Father, the Mother and The Height of the Storm, there is still a part of me that gets antsy at the work of Gallic wunderkind, Florian Zeller, and his English translator Christopher Hampton. There is something just too clever, too slick, too contrived about his plays. Just enough experimentation to justify the theatrical form, just enough plot jumps to keep those more accustomed to naturalistic TV drama on their toes. They are technically brilliant but for me he is just a teensy teensy bit guilt of manipulating audience emotions.

Having said that, in the superb space that is the Kiln, the right ratio of stage to audience, this is an utterly enthralling, unbroken 100 minutes of theatre. The Tourist may cavil at the concept behind these plays but, once again, the reality is undeniably affecting. We are back in a minimalist, pastel painted French apartment, grand piano at the rear, on the UK stage where the other two plays in the trilogy started, this time designed by Lizzie Clachlan. This is the home of lawyer Pierre (John Light), his new partner Sofia (Amaka Okafor) and their new baby. And troubled son Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) after he goes to live with Dad following a spell with Mum, Anne, (Amanda Abbington) after their divorce. We know adolescent Nicolas is troubled because he has skipped his new school for 3 months, writes on the wall, self-harms, bites his nails and shrugs his shoulders under Dad’s interrogation. But just to be sure we know he is disintegrating mentally he upends the flat and a whole bunch of stuff spills out a plastic bag attached to the ceiling to litter the parquet floor of the apartment. Subtle metaphor huh?

Pierre, Anne and Sofia try to help Nicolas, pleading, cajoling, arguing, listening, but eventually have to seek help in the form of a psychiatrist Doctor (Martin Turner) assisted by Nurse (Oseloka Obi, who I say deliver a fine Gaveston in Lazarus Theatre’s Edward II, though he doesn’t say much here). This doesn’t help. The ending is, in many ways, as unsurprising in its attempt to surprise as the development. Yet the dialogue, the dilemmas with which the characters are presented, the ratcheting up of Nicolas’s condition and the inability of his parents to prevent his decline is what makes the play take hold and not let go. Florian Zeller doesn’t feel the need to offer a clear explanation of why Nicolas is in such pain, surely more than the break-up of his parents: he simply analyses the consequences. I don’t know how realistic these behaviours or events might actually be, it feels a little too pat, but there is no doubting the way it connected to the audience, whether they were grandparent, parent, twenty-something or teen.

Michael Longhurst’s direction is perfectly paced, with scenes melting into each other, supported by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s delicate under-scoring and Lee Curran’s considered lighting. This allows John Light to show Pierre’s journey from brisk, business like problem solving to utter helplessness at his son’s condition, Amanda Abbington, with minimal dialogue, to communicate a mother’s incomprehension and guilt at not being able to rescue her son, and Amaka Okafor to reveal Sofia’s ambivalence, wanting to be the sympathetic outsider but caring more about her own happiness with Pierre and the needs of her new child. Martin Turner is perfectly cast as the stern, cruel to be kind, professional. However the evening, (well in this case afternoon), really belongs to Laurie Kynaston. Nicolas, on the page, only just stays the right side of over-written. It would be pretty easy, given the torment that Mr Kynaston has to project, to go too far. He does not. Bored, petulant, despairing, endearing, frightened, threatening, begging, desolate and more. We’ll being seeing a lot more of young Laurie.

So another hit to follow the slippery study of dementia in The Father, the pain of bereavement in old age in The Height of the Storm, and the dissolution of The Mother whose children have left the nest. In the right hands, Mr Zeller’s mix of contextless, multiple perspective, “unravelling of the mind” pyschodrama, with Christopher Hampton’s lucid translation, can be utterly absorbing even if the artificiality grates. In the wrong hands, thankfully not here and not in the other plays given the acting prowess of the likes of Kenneth Cranham, Gina McKee, Jonathan Price and Eileen Atkins, I can see it going very wrong. As, judging by the reviews in has in the transfer of The Mother to the Broadway stage with the doyenne of hauteur Isabell Huppert.

Caroline, or Change at the Hampstead Theatre review *****

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Caroline, or Change

Hampstead Theatre, 18th April 2018

How many exceptions does it take before the rule is unproven?

I don’t, as a rule, like musicals, as I have oft repeated on these very pages. I absolutely adored this though. That might be because it isn’t your classic show tunes, jazz hands, fake emotion overload. It might be because Jeanine Tesori’s eclectic score ranges across the history of African-American music, (with help from Jewish American music, and plenty more besides), and reminds us how lost contemporary human culture would be without it. it might be because CoC is operatic in intent and form. It might be because it is through-composed with no awkward recitative exposition. It might be because it is formally inventive, what with its singing appliances, swinging moon (!), split level and revolving stage, courtesy of Fly Davies, and repeated metaphors. It might be because Tony Kushner is a playwright, and here book and lyric writer, of fierce intelligence, politically engaged, unafraid of tackling big issues, or incorporating his own, real, experiences into his work. It might be because Sharon D. Clarke is just about the most powerful actor to be seen anywhere on the British stage. There are moments in this where her entire body quivers under the weight of Black American history. And when she sings. OMG as the young’uns would have it. And she’s not the only one knocking it out the park. Abiona Omanua as Emmie runs her a pretty close second in her own way.

This production was praised to the skies on its original outing at Chichester. I believed the hype, but ummed and ahhed about booking for the Hampstead transfer, trying to rope in some chums. No takers, the SO didn’t bite, her aversion to musicals being ideologically sounder than mine, so I ended up taking the plunge on my tod. In the end it was probably more the urge to collect productions of Mr Kushner’s work that swung it rather than these reviews. At times I was engrossed by both Angels in America at the NT and IHO here at Hampstead even if, ten minutes later, I baulked at his indulgence. His translation of Mother Courage was also used in the so-so recent production of Mother Courage at Southwark Playhouse. I can see why he likes Brecht.

Well I only need to have paid attention to the 5* reviews, and so should you now that this is transferring to the Playhouse Theatre, from late November through to early February next year. I strongly recommend you get tickets. And don’t skimp. It is rubbish upstairs in the Playhouse and you need to take in all the set. I also see that the prices for decent seats, whilst not cheap, are not eye-gougingly expensive.

Music first. Jeanine Tesori’s score is magnificent. I assume it was composed for the orchestral forces on show in this production, 11 strong, with Nigel Lilley conducting. They are certainly put through their paces with Haydnesque chamber passages, a Jewish klezmer dance, hymns and folk tunes wedded to gospel, blues, soul, jazz and spirituals. And still room for a couple of show-tunes. If this all sounds a bit rich, it isn’t. The rhythms are simple and infectious and the melodies and motifs clear and recognisable even to this untrained ear. Ms Tesori doesn’t waste a note. What is most extraordinary is how she renders Tony Kushner’s text so immediately musical, as, presumably, he doesn’t write that way. There is a good interview in the programme, as there always is, from Will Mortimer of the Hampstead Theatre, with TK and JT where they describe their creative process. They seem to like working together. There is also an article written by TK setting out the genesis of CoC and a helpful essay on domestic workers in the US from slavery through the civil rights movement to the present day The HT programmes are always excellent in this regard, with material directly relevant to the production and not too removed or abstract as can sometimes be the case.

Whilst all of the orchestra sounded terrific to me I would highlight the brass and woodwind contributions of Alice Lee and John Graham. Their instruments were always likely to get the lion’s share of the expressive lines, given Mr Kushner is unafraid of emotion, but they sure know how to deliver them. In total I counted 53 songs. Like I say there is no filler, but you can work out for yourselves that, across the couple of hours of performances this means nothing outstays its welcome, so we have dynamism to match the musical invention.

So what’s it about? It is the 1960s in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It is hot and humid.. Caroline Thibodeaux is an African American mother of four kids, Emmie, whose consciousness is being raised by the Civil Rights protests, Jackie and Joe (I am really sorry I don’t know which young actors where in the hotseat on the day of the performance I attended), and an elder son in the army. Caroline’s drunk, abusive husband is long gone. She works as maid to the Gellman family, Stuart Gellman, his second wife Rose Stopnick Gellman, and young Noah (based on Tony Kushner himself). We also get to meet Caroline’s friend Dotty Moffett, trying to “better herself” through night school, and the Gellman grandparents and Grandpa Stopnick, in various imagined scenes, and when they visit Louisiana from New York.

Oh and we are introduced to a singing washing machine, a dryer, a Supremes style trio representing the radio, a moon on a swing and a bus. As you do. These fantasy elements make perfect sense in the context of the story Kushner and Tesori are telling, and provide further contrasts to the already rich mix created by Ms Tesori’s music and by Mr Kushner’s sharp, poetic, lyrical, emotional, analytical, metaphysical and often very funny lyrics. One detail in particular, the illuminated red ring around Ako Mitchell’s neck, to simulate the dryer, but suggesting something way more horrific from America’s past, shows just how many ideas are at work here.

In 1963 self-absorbed Noah is 8, (sorry, as with the boys, I can’t be sure who played Noah), and prone to bothering Caroline, and lighting her cigarettes, as she launders in the Gellman house basement. Noah’s mum recently died of cancer and the relationship with step-mum is delicate. Stuart, still grieving, and Rose’s relationship isn’t perfect either. Caroline gets paid $30 a week. Rose offers her food rather than a raise, and later, condescendingly suggests she take the small change the family leave in their pockets, especially Noah. This idea of change, (both personal for Caroline, and politically for her family and community), and of the unequal economic relationship between the Gellmans and Caroline, of which they are all acutely conscious, is central to the drama, and presents an extraordinarily powerful metaphor.

The assassination of JFK, and his legacy, and the destruction of a statue of a Confederate soldier at the local Lake Charles courthouse, provide wider social and political context and, in the case of the latter, acute contemporary resonance, given, for example, the ugly events last year in Charlottesville. The politics ramps up before, during and after the Chanukah party in the first half of Act 2, which, for me, served up half an hour of the most vital theatre I have seen ever seen anywhere. The aftermath of the party, and an elusive $20 bill, prompts a bust up between Caroline and Noah and then some sort of spiritual epiphany for Caroline, culminating in the passionate song Lot’s Wife, which made me, and half the audience, quietly blu. Emmie though has the last, defiant, word.

Caroline is angry, sullen and resentful at the hand that life has dealt her, but her faith, her dignity, her conditioning and the stark fact that she needs to feed her family, means she cannot fight back. Emmie, from the next generation, can though. Mr Kushner points out in the programme how damaging the failure to resolve issues of race and poverty has been to the American politic, but he also offers a message than change is still possible.

The Hampstead stage is just about big enough to contain the set, though I gather it was more expansive at Chichester, but small enough to let us savour every line and note. I don’t think I missed a word and Michael Longhurst’s direction was exemplary (if you’ve see Amadeus at the National you’ll know what he’s about), ably assisted by Ann Yee’s intricate choreography.

In my own little fantasy world of reviews on this blog site I dole out stars like candy, largely because I get so excited with how much marvellous culture London offers that I really do feel like I am in the proverbial sweet shop. This though is a brook no argument 5* masterpiece.

The best thing I have seen this year. And I was perched up in the gods wishing I was much closer and had booked sooner.

You must see it.

 

Gloria at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

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Gloria

Hampstead Theatre, 4th July 2017

Right. This might actually be a review of, albeit dubious, utility. There are 3 weeks or so left on the run and there are  a fair few tickets left. And this is a fine piece of theatre with an interesting premise, formal innovation, enough material to cogitate on but not so taxing as to ruin your night out, and all in the convivial and convenient location that is the Hampstead Theatre.

The proper reviews give you a realistic flavour, though I think they maybe oversell the “frustrated millenials in workplace” drama that characterises the first half, and undersell the sharpness of the satire on “ownership of stories in today’s world of commoditised fake empathy” that drives the second half.

On the face of it this is a very different play from flavour of the month Branden Jacobs-Jenkins last London outing, An Octoroon at the Orange Tree (review here An Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****). That play was a dissertation on the notion of identity in the theatre using the guts of C19 playwright’s Dion Boucicault’s “slavery” melodrama, The Octoroon. Very clever, very entertaining. Gloria is also clever and entertaining but in a more subtle way (one coup de theatre aside). Moreover it also riffs on the ownership of narratives which for me is something theatre is uniquely able to address.

The first half is set in an NYC magazine publishing house where three put-upon late 20s assistants bemoan their lot with a mixture of anger, humour and resignation. Kae Alexander plays Kendra, an entitled Asian-American princess who is long on railing against the iniquity of the thwarted career opportunities for her generation, but short on any work ethic that might help to change this. Ellie Kendrick (last seem by me out-Oscaring all those Hollywood chumps in the brilliant film The Levelling, which cost about the same as one Oscar night table of goodie bags to make) plays Ani, whose outward show of sweetness and light likely masks a more ruthless streak. Colin Morgan (you know Merlin in a former life) plays Dean, just turned 30 and still lapdog to unseen editor Nan. They are joined by the seemingly ineffectual intern Miles (Bayo Gbadamosi), and visited by the eponymous frustrated office lifer Gloria (Sian Clifford) and stressed fact checker Lorin.

The detail of the frustrations that each of these characters face is well observed (BJJ spent a few years at Vanity Fair) and pretty funny. This first half does get close to outstaying its welcome but BJJ has a cunning and surprising trick up his sleeve to bridge us into the second half. I will leave the description there: suffice to say that the second half explores its chosen themes with the same economy and insight as the first. I see some of the criterati don’t recognise the office workplace on show here: I think that says more about them than it will about you (assuming you are not some ancient has-been like me and the other educated pensioner types who are always getting in the way of the more worthy younger punters in the quality London theatres).

In contrast to An Octoroon this play is not chock full of meta devices and playful alienating effects. It is, broadly, a naturalistic structure but the use of doubling for “new” characters in the second half, whilst hardly revolutionary, works well, at least for me. I can’t wait to see more of BJJ’s plays over here. and, given the reception afforded to this and An Octoroon, these should not be too long in coming. And best of all when asked in the programme interview who his favourite playwright is, he answered Caryl Churchill. What an astute young(ish) man.

I am dubious about filling a cast up with young names off the telly even if it does offer the prospect of better economics for producers/artistic directors. Here however it worked a treat. The entire cast was faultless but our three millenials shone. Michael Longhurst is blessed with the ability to perfectly pace any play he directs and Lizzie Clachan turned in another set which which offered an elegant solution to functional necessity. It is possible to make a vernacular theatrical settings elegant, but I bet it’s not easy.

So if I were you I would give this a whirl. Worst case you get to here a bit of JS Bach (a slightly different take on Gloria).