Network at the National Theatre review *****



National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th March 2018

Right then. Finally got to see Network. Booked early but this was the first date that BUD, KCK and the Blonde Bombshells could collectively make. A bit nervous because the last time we wheeled the Bombshells out to an Ivo van Hove entertainment it was Obsession at the Barbican which gets more disappointing as time elapses (Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***).

You can divide Mr van Hove’s work along three dimensions I reckon depending whether he adopts the “austere, psychologically insightful” or “busy, technological overload” aesthetic, whether or not he works with the Toneelgroep Amsterdam ensemble or other actors, and whether the play is drawn from a classic text or is adapted from a film. Most of the time he hits the jackpot but there is always a risk of disappointment, Obsession, the very dull Antigone a few years ago and the so-so After the Rehearsal/Persona Bergman adaption, being cases in point.

Obviously Network is brilliant. You know that from the reviews when it opened and all the social media buzz. Not just my opinion but the opinion of my guests who were well impressed. Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 media satire, directed by Sidney Lumet, is a marvellous film. I watched it again ahead of this just to check. Fast-moving, acidic, contemptuous, intelligent, disturbingly prescient, strident, it isn’t subtle but it is hugely effective. I particularly love the performances of Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen, Robert Duvall as Frank Hackett and Marlene Warfield as Laureen Hobbs.

Now if I am honest Lee Hall did not strike me as an obvious choice to adapt Paddy Chayefsky’s precious script. Then again Mr Hall, the brains behind Billy Elliot, War Horse and Victoria and Abdul on screen, The Pitmen Painters, Shakespeare in Love and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour on stage, and an adept Brecht translator, is nothing if not versatile. Wisely he and Mr van Hove have elected to faithfully translate most of the vital dialogue from the film, with some minor shuffling between characters. The temptation to tamper with, for example, CCA Chairman Jensen’s excoriating speech about the power of capital, is resisted, as are Howard Beale’s own show sermons. It is unfortunate that the negotiation scenes involving the Ecumenical Liberation Army and the Communist Party of America are abandoned, they tickle me, but something had to give. The relationship between the obsessive TV programming executive Diana Christensen, whose only reference point is her own ambition, and news chief Max Schumacher, is fully preserved as is his wife’s, Louise Schumacher, pain at his betrayal. And all the corporate manoeuvring.

So plot, sub-plots and text vigorously reconstructed, what next? This is where the magic of Mr van Hove and his designer sidekick, Jan Versweyveld, really kicks in. The template they employ is well tested from the longstanding Toneelgroep Amsterdam Shakespeare adaptations, Roman Tragedies, and it more recent cousin, Kings of War. Extensive use of live, on-stage video and video fragments, mixed in real time, a stunning achievement from designer Tal Yarden and team. A thundering soundscape from Eric Sleichim with an on-stage quartet BLINDMAN. Costumes from An D’Huys which are exact re-creations of the mid 1970s setting. There is a “UBS” TV production suite on stage. There is, famously, a restaurant on one side. and costume and make-up desks lurk at the back of the stage. All the guts, the manipulation, of the production are on show and, because key scenes are set in a TV studio, this surely couldn’t be more effective. There is even a slightly time delayed video sequence where Max and Diana stroll along the South Bank with umbrella. (Mind you this couldn’t top the bemusement of some lost tourists caught on camera stumbling across the performance of Bart Siegers, I think, as Enobarbus, in Roman Tragedies, outside the Barbican).

In addition to the thrilling technical wizardry, Mr van Hove, breaks the wall, and ropes the audience in repeatedly as the story unfolds, in the warm-up at the top of the Howard Beale show, when Beale clambers into the audience and, obviously, when the assassin emerges at the end. The messages about the lengths broadcasters will go to to secure ratings, the ugly emptiness of much popular entertainment, the voracious appetite of the capitalist structure which sits behind this, the immorality and venality of those hardened by the system, the co-option of those who purport to stand against it, the alienation that they, and we, experience, ring out load. No updating of the plot required from an analogue to a digital world: the frantic, exhausting hyper-reality of the production does this for us. Remember the film was produced before the rise of neo-liberalism. Paddy Chayefsky died in 1981. If he was angry then, he’d be bloody livid now.

OK so there are one or two moments when being bashed over the head by this story and this production is a little tiring. But that I suppose is exactly the point, and you can chew more slowly on the content after the fact, as we have been doing.

As if this wasn’t enough we have an astonishing performance from Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale. Casting him looks to have been the most inspired of a string of inspired decisions around this production. Now as I understand it, Mr Cranston spent many years as a moderately successful jobbing actor before his turn in Malcolm in the Middle (never seen it), and then, famously, Breaking Bad. I generally can’t be doing with these TV series, preferring to see my pleasures in more concentrated form, as should be clear from this blog. However BB was an exception though it did test my patience at times across the 60 odd episodes. Still it is rare to see such a complete portrayal in any dramatic medium.

For me BC betters Peter Finch’s screen Howard by appearing to retain a better grasp on the forces around him. That is not to say that BC doesn’t show Beale’s mental collapse, just that, once his albeit damaged mind is made up to preach his disgust, he summons up a strength that Mr Finch’s more prophetic Beale lacks. The shift in Beale’s rhetoric post the meeting with Jensen is actually more satisfying on stage. Mr Cranston is riveting in the video close-ups as Beale moves from resignation, to desperation, through wild anger, and on to zealotry and an almost gnomic mysticism.

Michelle Dockery’s Diana is not quite as emptily amoral as Faye Dunaway’s on-screen version, but the relationship with Douglas Henshall’s Max just about works. The collapse of his shallow idealism is matched by his pathetic attempts to secure her empty affection. She never cares, he knows this from the start, he stops caring, in the end neither one of them cares. Beverly Longhurst, as Louise Schumacher, standing in for Caroline Faber gets to deliver the only really compassionate lines in the production when she boots him out. You should be very afraid of Richard Cordery’s Arthur Jensen, that’s what the men consumed by power at the top are like. I was also much persuaded by Tunji Kasim’s Frank Hackett, but frankly barely anyone puts a foot wrong here. Just as well, it would have been chaos if they had.

At its heart I think Network is a plea for our shared humanity not to be broken by an economic complex which seems to be beyond our understanding and influence, and not to be bullied and sedated by technology. What better place to do that than in the elemental forum for shared experience which is the theatre.

Beware the Infotainment Scam people. Mind you I might just have been scammed by Mr van Hove and his collaborators. It felt good though.

John at the National Theatre review *****



National Theatre (Dorfman), 6th February 2018

I would be very wary of playwright Annie Baker if I were you. She will bewitch you. Magical powers. That is the only way to explain John. Nothing really dramatic happens, the setting doesn’t change and the words, initially at least, seem quite ordinary. Yet the longer it goes on, (it clocks in at near 3 hours even stripping out a couple of intervals), the more mesmerised the audience becomes. It is “pregnant with possibilities” you see and turns out to be anything but ordinary. Extraordinary in fact. John goes beyond the exaggerated naturalism of Annie Baker’s previous plays into, well, a theatrical place that I have never quite experienced before.

How she wrote it is beyond me. Conjuring up these voices, and then just letting them speak in the moment, reveals a writer of utter confidence who knows exactly what she is about. If she can see and hear the whole thing before putting pen to paper I am in awe. If she makes it up as she goes along, (I know, she almost certainly didn’t), then frankly I am gobsmacked.

Haunting is the word I have seen elsewhere to encapsulate John and it is a good word both to describe the meanings that Ms Baker seeks to explore, the effects she creates and the memories she delivers beyond initial viewing. The very best plays/productions leave you with a series of pictures in your head that can be recalled long afterwards, (doh – that’s how memory works you numbnut), and it is not always the ones that you might immediately expect. John vividly falls into this category.

It is the week after Thanksgiving. Jenny (Anneika Rose) and Elias (Tom Mothersdale) arrive at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania run by Mertis (Marylouise Burke). All that follows takes place in the lounge/dining area of the B&B. Chloe Lamford’s set is a thing of wonder and a character in itself. A vintage radio cum juke box seems to be permanently set to Bach. A self-playing piano alarmingly springs to life. The furniture is exactly as you would imagine in a fading but homely B&B. Think dusty chintz. The staircase leads to a handful of unseen bedrooms, (to which Jenny and Elias retreat on occasion), which seem never to be heated. The dining area is, optimistically, named “Paris”. There are knick-knacks a plenty but what is most disturbing are the dolls lining a high shelf. Jenny even recognises one of them as the doll which unsettled her as a child. Peter Mumford’s superb lighting complements the set. The atmosphere which is created is ever so slightly off-kilter from the expected cosy, but still a long way from full-blown, Gothic supernatural.

It was Elias’s idea to come to Gettysburg for a couple of nights after seeing Jenny’s family: she was less sure. (Gettysburg remains the single biggest day, well three days, of slaughter in American history and was the turning point in the Civil War. One for students of semiotics there methinks). Elias is a musician, Jenny writes questions for a TV quiz show. They are three years into their relationship but cracks are appearing. Innocent comments, or texts, can prompt gentle bickering. Moody Elias is always looking to take offence: Jenny predictably counters with textbook passive-aggressiveness. There are silences – Ms Baker really, really understands the importance of silences. Then, just as naturally, they cuddle up on the sofa, (too cold upstairs), with Elias trying to make up “ghost” stories. So, a portrait of an entirely recognisable modern couple, played to perfection by Anneika Rose and Tom Mothersdale.

And so to Mertis, aka Kitty. Marylouise Burke is a veteran of the US stage and this is a remarkable performance. Mertis throughout is sweet, dithery, eccentric, but no cliche. She runs the B&B with second husband George, who is apparently ill and remains unseen. Her blind friend Genevieve, another perfectly pitched performance from June Watson, comes to visit, and, over a few glasses she and Mertis engage Jenny in meaningful conversation, Jenny having stayed behind suffering from menstrual cramps as martyr Elias went off alone to visit the battlefields. Genevieve is a more forthright character than Mertis but both believe they have been accompanied by “watchers” in their lives. This culminates in the idea of love as a haunting, literally in Genevieve case by her ex called, you guessed it, John. Jenny feels something of the same as does Elias when subsequently cornered by Mertis.

This then is what I took to be the central concern of the play. The idea that the uncertainty, loneliness and disappointment of life is what drives the urge to believe in, take comfort from, or be disturbed by, something beyond the immediate and rational. The uncanny stories, (in Act 3 Mertis reads some Lovecraft to Genevieve who then remains in the shadows through Elias and Jenny’s “final” argument), conversations, signs and symbols that abound in the play, as well as the precise naturalism of the lines, are, I think, what Annie Baker has alighted on to force us to think about how this “need” articulates with our interior monologues and our sense of external reality. Alternatively maybe I am just a pseud who thinks too much.

Theatre, at its best, is a shared experience in a way that other art forms cannot replicate. The connection between text and actor, character and actor, audience and actor for sure. But also the connection between members of the audience as text and performance unfold. That was definitely in the air for John. It is subtle but entirely engrossing. It is crammed with detail, and that is just what registered, there was probably loads more that I missed. Oh and did I say it is funny. Because, at times, it really is.

It is no surprise that James Macdonald is the director here. Is there a director working on the UK stage who is more sympathetic to playwrights? I don’t think so. I am pretty sure this will end up being in my top ten plays this year and I will do my level best to see more of Annie Baker’s plays. (I see Circle, Mirror, Transformation is being revived at Home, Manchester shortly).

If you are one of those bellends who feels the need to constantly check your phone then this probably isn’t for you. But if you are at all interested in the possibilities of theatre then you should snap up one of the tickets for the remaining performances, snuggle into a seat at the Dorfman, (not always that easy), and let this evocative play bleed into you.




My pick of London theatre – on now and booking ahead


Right let me cut to the chase. Here is my latest attempt to distil the best of what is on now and what is coming up in the world of London theatre. There is a bunch of new stuff notably at the National Theatre, the Barbican, the Donmar Warehouse, the Hampstead Theatre and in the West End which has been announced since my last round-up which should be investigated. Happy theatre going.

Top 10 – all on now

1. The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. I know most of you theatre lovers will have already seen it but if you haven’t you must. The Ferryman at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

2. Oslo at the Harold Pinter Theatre. This shouldn’t work – a straight narrative of the negotiations that led to the Oslo Accord between Israel and the PLO – but it does and is bloody magnificent. Oslo at the National Theatre review *****

3. Follies at the National. I hate musicals. This is different though. Made me want to cry and punch the air. Pretty much sold out but if it transfers snap it up or watch the cinema transmission next week. Follies at the National Theatre review *****

4. The End of Hope at the Soho Theatre. Go see this this weekend if you have nothing else to do. I saw this at the Orange Tree. A two hander which set in Northern Ireland by David Ireland and directed by a student amazingly. Just 60 mins and cheap as chips. It is hilarious and cutting. Highly recommended. Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre review

5. Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre. The Bridge’s first offering. Not perfect but still v. funny and the new Bridge Theatre is wonderful. Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre review ****

6. Albion at the Almeida Theatre. Mike Bartlett’s (he who wrote the lines that have you shouting at the telly when Dr Foster is on) latest offering. A state of the nation thing. I loved it. Looks like it is sold out so you should have paid attention when I recommended it months ago. Albion at the Almeida Theatre review ****

7. Beginning at the National Theatre. Two hander on the excruciating pain of dating. Terrific. A few tickets left for the last week. Beginning at the National Theatre review ****

8. Minefield at the Royal Court. Only a couple of dates this weekend. Six veterans from the Falklands War act out their experiences. Really engrossing and moving.

9. Heather at the Bush Theatre. Tiny venue. Gold star from me if you see this. Amazingly clever play about a children’s author who is not what she seems. Only an hour.

10. The Comedy About a Bank Robbery at the Criterion Theatre. I went with LD to see this for the second time recently. Terrible West End venue and full of tourists (no offence intended) but it is still the funniest thing on the London stage so an Xmas treat if you haven’t been. The Comedy About a Bank Robbery at the Criterion Theatre review ****

Top 12 – booking ahead

1. A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre. I WILL WRITE THIS IN CAPITALS. YOU MUST BOOK THIS. This has just been announced. A new play from Martin McDonagh about Hans Christian Anderson (don’t laugh). McDongah’s last play was Hangmen which me and the SO think is the best play we have seen in the last 3 years. He wrote the classic film In Bruges. It will be caustically funny and gripping. I know it is next year but don’t blame me if you miss out as this won’t transfer since the Bridge is already a commercial theatre.

2. Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre. I know. Bloody Shakespeare. But the cast here is to die for. Plenty of tickets.

3. Macbeth at the National. Rory Kinnear and Anne_Marie Duff, our two finest stage actors of their generation, as the Lord and Lady. Will be unmissable. Booking opens next week.

4. John at the National. New Annie Baker play. This will likely sell out in hours as she has a cult following. Booking opens next week. Make sure to look at the “coming soon” part of the National as there is lots of good stuff.

5. Network at the National. High expectations but should be justified. Bryan Cranston as the TV anchor who has a meltdown. Looks like it is pretty much sold out so again should have listened a few months ago.

6. The Encounter at the Barbican. Bear with me on this. It is amazing. Simon McBurney (who is a genius) brings to life a book about a bloke getting lost in the Amazon. They give you fancy headphones and then he takes you on the journey. Booking opens tomorrow.

7. Pericles at the Barbican. From Cheek by Jowl a theatre company I love. A rare(ish) outing for a late(ish) Shakespeare. In French with surtitles so if you are a French speaker this is your time to shine. Booking opens tomorrow

8. The Twilight Zone at the Almeida. Don’t know if this is going to work but it’s the Almeida so I will give them the benefit of the doubt. Based on the 60s sci-fi TV series !! Plenty of tickets.

9. Belleville at the Donmar Warehouse. US transfer. Main draw is that James Norton in the lead who my ladies fancy something rotten. Looks like it may have sold out. Sorry. Elsewhere in the Donmar season is Congreve’s restoration comedy Way of the World which has Linda Bassett in the lead who is a genius actor (only a few tickets left cos us luvvies snap them up) and The York Realist a gay love story set in the 60s. Like the Almeida and the Royal Court the Donmar doesn’t generally do duds.

10. Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre. Mamet’s shouty modern classic with a stellar cast and Sam Yates given the director’s chair.

11. The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Pinter’s guest house to avoid with a fascinating cast and Ian Rickson directing.

12. Gundog at the Royal Court Theatre. I pretty much book anything that looks even vaguely interesting at the Royal Court, Orange Tree, Arcola and Young Vic. This is a guaranteed way to see stunning theatre at bargain prices. (though the RC prices have crept up) I can’t tell you why Gundog is on this list. I just have a feeling.



Follies at the National Theatre review *****



National Theatre, 2nd November 2017

I now think I might be mistaken in my general aversion to musical theatre. I think the problem may be that I just haven’t seen enough Sondheim. You can see from all the proper reviews and audience feedback just how well this production has gone down. Believe it. This is outstanding. Worth the thirty year wait And this from someone who is never happier than when he is locked up with 20 other punters above a pub seeing some obscure piece of European metaphysical miserabilism. So you can trust me on this.

There are a handful of tickets left. Or you can go with the Friday Rush or Day Tickets approach. If you can bear to do this, it will be worth it. This obviously cost a bomb to stage, so who knows if it will transfer, though patently it deserves too. If all else fails get to the cinema on 16th November when the performance will be screened live. Anyway, with a bit of luck, you are not a pompous, prejudiced berk like me and you will have already seen it.

Why so gushing? Design yes, courtesy of the gifted Vicki Mortimer, with her half=demolished theatre come to life on stage. The Olivier stage works best when the revolve is gainfully employed and when there is a hulking piece of stuff in the middle playing its part, as it does here. Direction yes. As others have remarked it is hard to believe this is Dominic Cooke’s first musical. Mind you, most everything he has done before, notably at the Royal Court, has turned to gold. This catapults him right to the top of the directorial league. The 21 piece orchestra, conducted by Nigel Lilley, the musical supervision of Nicholas Skilbeck, the orchestration of Jonathan Tunick and Josh Clayton and the outstanding choreography of Bill Deamer, especially in the tap routines; all combine seamlessly. Lighting and costumes are also to die for. Neon, washes, spotlights, feathers, sequins, heels, frocks, wigs, dickie bows, acres of face slap. Glam and glitz all present, correct and suitably superficial as the tale demands.

The 37 strong cast (bigger than a Premiership squad) is uniformly marvellous. The four leads garner most of the plaudits. Watching Imelda Staunton’s Sally, her girlish excitement as she is reunited with paramour Ben turning to bitter disappointment as reality bites, is about as good as acting gets. This is Imelda Staunton though so expect no less. Her rendition of “Losing My Mind” is spine tinglingly raw. Janie Dee as Phyllis, all disdainful bitterness, matches her. A trail of bile follows her round the stage. It all comes flooding out in the contemptuous “Could I Leave You”. Philip Quast is the big male beast of proper musical theatre and his Ben Stone is, to use another cliche, commanding. Watching him finally fall to pieces in the “Live, Laugh, Love” is as moving as theatre gets. Poor old Ben; money and status can’t buy you love or happiness. In my book, Buddy is the trickiest character to pull off, but not for Peter Forbes, who nails Buddy’s solipsistic refusal to take responsibility, preferring to play the fool, as he does in the “God Why Don’t You Love Me Blues”.

The younger ghostly doppelgangers (Fred Haig, Zizi Strallen, Alex Young and Adam Rhys-Charles) are perfectly matched, to each other and their mature selfs, and move effortlessly round the set. Who else? Tracie Bennett’s Carlotta, as she belts out “I’m Still Here”, even though no-one is listening, makes you want to punch the air. Operatic soprano Josephine Barstow’s duet with her younger Heidi self, play by Alison Langer, is another highlight. As, unsurprisingly, is Di Botcher as besuited Hattie in “Broadway Baby”. There are some other mind-blowing set pieces. The routine where the ladies intertwine with their sequinned and head-dressed younger selves is a highlight, as are the entrances early on down the fire escape stairs. The pastiche/parody routines are jaw dropping, camply serious, not seriously camp.

Here’s the thing though. All this stuff wouldn’t work for me if there weren’t real characters inside all the song and dance stuff and if the text and lyrics didn’t illuminate the characters. I can see that, at its heart, the story of a reunion of the showgirl cast and creator of an interwar Follies review is pretty flimsy. And that the idea of regret over lives lived and not lived, is hardly ground-breaking dramatic material. And bugger all happens. But I cared so much for these people.

And I think that even in the absence of a more upbeat ending as was apparently the case in the 1987 revival, this is still perversely an uplifting piece of theatre. And not just because of the tunes, though the way Sondheim’s music wraps its way around his lyrics, particularly into and out of the big songs, is a wonder to the ears. He just seems to perfectly capture not just the cadence of the words but also the emotions of the characters. No, the reason I came out all puffed up after this is because I think Sondheim, and writer James Goldman, tell us that all of this agonising over what might have been, which is basically what our four leads spend 2 hours bemoaning, is ultimately pointless. You only have one life. It will be full of disappointment and missed opportunities. But you might as well try and be happy with what you have. I appreciate this homily is f*ck all use if you don’t have the basics, or if your relationship threatens your physical or mental well being, but I can only describe what I think I saw and heard. There are plenty of other bright sparks, starting with that Buddha chap, who would agree that the best thing to do is ditch the constant yearning for something better. Dump the act: be yourself.

So there you have it. Redemption for Rufus Norris, AD at the NT, after the string of misses, (not as bad as some think in my book), on the Olivier stage this season. A triumphant revival of a marvellous piece of theatre where no-one, literally, puts a foot wrong. I am still smiling a week later. Loved it. No idea what the original audiences in 1971 Broadway were thinking when they failed to turn this into a monster hit.

Oslo at the National Theatre review *****



National Theatre, 19th September 2017

Well I’ll be damned. I didn’t book Oslo at the earliest opportunity, as is my wont for most of the NT output, and only took a swing at it because of the NYC reviews. And even then I wasn’t sure. I mean how could a near 3 hour, straight dramatisation of the negotiations which led to the signing of the Oslo Accord between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993, possibly form the basis for a riveting work of theatre?

Well it turns out riveting is exactly what it is. Writer JT Rodgers has understood from the master of such entertainments, a certain Will Shakespeare, exactly how to write a “history play”. Get the context in early and make sure we know who is who and why they are there. Weave this information into the drama, but don’t hesitate to repeat it, in this case through the use of a direct to audience narration from Mona Juul, played by Lydia Leonard. Make the scenes short and sweet. Do not permit long, expository monologues. Show the human side of the people but don’t hold back on the process (we the audience don’t need to be patronised – we will get it). In this case, given that the whole purpose of the negotiations in Oslo was to bypass the confrontational and procedural approach of the formal peace negotiations sponsored by the US, showing the humanity of the key protagonists came naturally through the dialogue. Don’t fret too much about sticking too closely to the exact facts – this is drama after all. Finally give us some ebb and flow, some tension, some heroics and sacrifices and some cliffhanger moments. Oh and stuff in plenty of humorous interludes.

Mona Juul is an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. Husband Terje Rod-Larsen (Toby Stephens) runs an Institute and meets pragmatic Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin (Jacob Krichefski). They offer a neutral, and clandestine, forum in Oslo, to the desperate PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie (Peter Polycarpou), and his Marxist sidekick, Hassan Asfour (Nabil Elouahabi), to meet two scruffy Israeli economics professors played by Paul Herzberg (who also doubled as Shimon Peres no less) and Thomas Arnold, to discuss the route to peace. As progress is made, the Israeli side is upgraded with the arrival of colourful Foreign Ministry senior official Uri Savir, (Philip Arditti) and eventually wary legal big cheese Joel Singer (Yair Jonah Lotan). With the assistance of Howard Ward, Geraldine Alexander Daniel Stewart, Anthony Shuster and Karoline Gable doubling up in the supporting roles, the ensemble is completed.

And what an ensemble. Whilst the writer is possessed of of an impeccably direct, funny and natural style, this was never going to work as well as it did without such perfect casting. Toby Stephens nails Rod-Larsen’s urbane mateyness but also left us wondering over his motives. Lydia Leonard (with whom I am a little bit in love I admit) was all archness and efficient charm You really believed that Peter Polycarpou and Philip Arditti’s characters found a shared bond that could bridge their massive political differences. And you reflect, with Toby Stephens’ final lines, on how uplifting the better side of our nature can be, even if so often, we (and our politicians on our behalf if we choose them), fail to let it shine.

This is a properly gripping and affecting story, expertly told, directed with stonking momentum by Bartlett Sher and with a suitably ambassadorial set from Michael Yeargan. If there is any justice it should fill the house at Harold Pinter Theatre for the transfer. I heartily recommend it.


Mosquitoes at the National Theatre review ****



National Theatre, 18th September 2017

Two sisters. Some sad stuff happens to them. Sciencey backdrop.

There you go. That’s Mosquitoes. Except that is isn’t. Lucy Kirkwood is not the type of playwright to let us off the hook that easily. She chucks a lot into this pot, brings it to the boil and what a tasty stew comes out after two and a half hours or so. It may be a bit rich but, ultimately, is easily digestible.

Mind you without the two Olivias, Colman and Williams, I doubt this would be half as good. You know the thing where you see a play, and the leads are so utterly convincing that you swear no one else could carry it off. Until you see someone else playing the part as well or better and you realise that the actors were just bloody good at their jobs. Well in this case I really doubt the performances could be bettered. They were the two sisters, Alice and Jenny, made more potent because they look like they could be sisters. (I know this leaves me caught in a simplistic, mimetic trap but in this case really helps that they looked the parts).

For at the heart of this play is the relationship between them. Whilst Ms Kirkwood is becoming ever more ambitious in her plays, and the themes that they engage with, what I love about her writing is the portrayal of the relationships. From the moment Alice feels Jenny’s pregnant bump to the last moment, having come full circle, to substantially the same scene, the sisters dilemmas felt vital and real. Indeed the metaphor of the circle is writ large in the play with the set comprising two giant circles, in part to represent Alice’s work as a scientist at CERN (the home of the Large Hadron Collider). The mosquitoes of the title also get a couple of metaphorical look-ins.

Along the way Ms Kirkwood asks some big questions. How should scientists, for whom science is defined by uncertainty, engage with us lay-people, who fervently need science to deliver certainty? What is the value of physics to society and where are we in reconciling the quantum mechanics of the very small with the forces that govern the universe and the physics of the very large? Where does “God” fit in? What will happen at the end of time? What is the nature of intelligence and how does this relate to emotion? What drives the “success” and “failure” of siblings within a family? Why has women’s contribution to science been so undervalued? How to balance work and family? Yet this all sits comfortably inside the boundaries of the drama – even when we go off the naturalistic piste.

I gather Olivia Colman is a bit ambivalent about the stage. She shouldn’t be. We see from her TV performances that she possesses an uncanny ability to create an intense emotional connection with us the audience, even when playing the most “ordinary” of characters. And she repeats the trick here. Jenny isn’t as bright as sister Alice, as Alice and mother Karen, pointedly, patronisingly and repeatedly remind her. And Jenny makes mistakes. Foregoing the MMR vaccine having swallowed the autism connection bullshit from the media, and in spite of Jenny’s protestations, has fatal consequences for her child. She is estranged from her husband. She sells dodgy insurance from a call centre. But when Alice’s life unravels, as her awkward son Luke is bullied and then absconds after engaging in some over-enthusiastic hacking, it is Jenny that Alice turns to. And it is Jenny that is dealing with Mum’s incipient dementia.

Olivia Colman plays Jenny with an earthy, matter-of-factness. There are a lot of laughs from her lines. She says what she feels and takes risks that Alice cannot or will not. The “emotional intelligence” yin to the “academic intelligence” yang of Olivia Williams’s Alice. Olivia WIlliams perfectly captures Alice’s emotional uncertainty. Luke’s father has left and her devotion to work leaves her son even more alone. The absent father pops up as The Boson, who is also our narrator for the big science lessons, a satisfying conceit. Paul Hilton, last seen by us as Peter Pan here at the National, grabs this role with both hands. I was also mightily impressed with Joseph Quinn as Luke, in a role with some similarities to the last time I saw him in Katherine Sopher’s devastating Wish List at the Royal Court. Amanda Boxer’s Karen is also beautifully realised: you can see echoes of her personality in her two daughters. Sofia Barclay, as Luke’s treacherous friend, and Yoli Fuller, as Alice’s beau, turn in skilful performances in vital roles.

Rufus Norris’s direction is as astute as ever. There is a lot packed in her, and even with the excellent performances and stunning set (courtesy of Katrina Lindsay), sound, lighting, music and video, this still required an expert hand at the tiller. If the director’s job is getting people on and off the stage to paraphrase Peter Brook, then Mr Norris can feel well satisfied, for on and off was perfectly executed.

So all in all a hit. I don’t know if it will pop up elsewhere but this is another production that gives the lie to the “NT has gone wobbly” nonsense meme. And, having covered the secrets of the universe and the mysteries of particle physics here, I have no idea where Lucy Kirkwood’s unbounded imagination will leap to next.

Angels in America at the National Theatre review *****


Angels in America: Part One Millennium Approaches and Part Two Perestroika

National Theatre, 29th July 2017

That Tony Kushner is an ambitious playwright. This will comes as no surprise to you experienced theatre lovers but, having seen this and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Hampstead Theatre last year, this has come as a revelation to this newbie.

Ostensibly Angels in America is a play about the impact of HIV/AIDS on a handful of characters beginning in mid 1980s New York and the denials that dominate their lives. Into this Mr Kushner weaves an examination of religion (specifically Mormonism and Judaism) and personal salvation, the rise of economic neo-liberalism and fall of communism, national, personal and sexual identity, the nature of responsibility and even the march of history itself – fin de siecle anyone?. The characters generally don’t do much in the way of small talk, yet all the exposition is punctured by genuinely funny humour. These people do not lack self awareness, that’s for sure.

Part One generally remains within the bounds of the naturalistic, Part Two goes into metaphysical overdrive as the curiously ineffectual angels (who themselves have been deserted by God) start to pile up. If I am honest it is all a bit nuts at times but the points that Mr Kushner wants to make more than justify the formal experimentation. And he does make a lot of points as I said. Sometimes repeatedly and with no let up in the erudition.

Now you might think the thick end of 8 hours of this, for those of us who opted for the one day experience, might turn into too much of a good thing. I have to say though that, with the exception of a few longueurs, you would be wrong. Mr Kushner’s writing creates, in me at least, a kind of heightened perception of the themes he is exploring, whilst still delivering a story, or stories more precisely, with forward momentum, and characters that you can love (or hate) despite, or perhaps because of, their intensity. As with all very. very clever people, Mr Kushner is maybe occasionally guilty of mislaying the “less is more” filter but this is a small price to pay to be dazzled on this scale. And whilst the direct impact of HIV/AIDS may have changed in public discourse in the last three decades or so, the questions the play poses directly and indirectly are still painfully relevant.

As for the production, well it is brilliant. Marianne Elliot’s direction is faultless. Meticulous precision has been applied to the combination of Ian McNeil’s set, lighting, sound, and yes, even the angels, which means the rhythm of the play is never impeded. And the cast. OMG. I don’t think I have ever seen as many high level performances as in this production. Andrew Garfield is astonishing as Prior Walter whose campness turns to courage. If anything Nathan Lane is even better as Roy Cohn, whose denial of his illness is as aggressive as his delusional politics. This two performances alone would be enough to justify the ticket price but then you have James McArdle chiming in with an impeccable portrayal of Louis Ironson, Prior’s lover who is riddled with guilt and hypocrisy. And then you have Russell Tovey as Mormon Joseph Pitt whose sexual denial has to crack, and, maybe most memorably for me, Denise Gough, who takes the part of Harper Pitt. Joseph’s pained wife and turns it into triumphant release. On and then you have Susan Brown, Amanda Lawrence and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, lighting up the stage as they cover most of the remaining parts. Collectively this is acting of the highest order.

So you can see I liked it. A lot. Like I said it does sprawl a bit, and the brain did need a few minutes of time out across the hours, but this is what theatre is all about. So if you are a theatre luvvie stick it on your bucket list. If you are a philistine run a mile.