The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noel Coward Theatre review *****

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The Lieutenant of Inishmore

Noel Coward Theatre, 31st August 2018

My regular reader, (hello), will need no reminding, (OK maybe they will), that I am a massive fan of Mr Martin McDonagh. Hangmen is the best new play I have seen in the last 3 years, indeed one of the best ever, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, amongst the best films. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri film review *****). I am massively excited about his new play, A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter, which will open at the Bridge Theatre in October, with Jim Broadbent in the lead as Hans Christian Anderson and Phil Daniels alongside him as Dickens. It sound like it will plough the same dark furrow as 2003’s Pillowman, (which Mr Broadbent originally starred in), where a writer, living in an unspecified totalitarian theocracy, is accused of murders which mimic the plots of his own fairy tales. It is meta, a bit Gothic, it captures the power of literature, there’s some Kafka going on, the ethical dilemma is fascinating if a little forced, of course there is violent imagery and of course there is humour.

Like all of McDonagh’s plays The Pillowman’s morality is slippery, though not really ambiguous; it is normally pretty clear what he is saying, just that its compass is oscillating so rapidly between perspectives of right and wrong that we in turn start to  lose our bearings. That is what makes them thrilling. I would be pretty sure that violence is going to be a theme in the new play, as well as the nature of “story-telling”, based on the intriguing Bridge blurb.

Prior to The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore was the last produced of Mr McDonagh’s “Irish” plays, and the second in the Aran Islands trilogy, (named after the three islands in Galway Bay), and was originally produced in 2001 by the RSC. (The final play in the trilogy, The Banshees of Inisheer, is as yet unpublished). Michael Grandage, the director here, revived the first in the trilogy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, to great acclaim, in 2013, at this very theatre, with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead. It is, you guessed it, a black comedy, this time about the impact on the community, and specifically bookish loner Billy, of a Hollywood film crew on neighbouring Inishmore in 1934. The documentary, like the play, was a sort of pastiche on the “remote” west of Ireland, and there are strong echoes of JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. McDonagh, with his rapid plot reversals, with his fictions and lies, and with that always slippery morality, again sets out to confuse and offend. Here his target is the whole notion of Irish identity, the creation myths if you will. Set it up, then knock it down, shift it on, that’s the method he employs and that’s why his plays and films are so bloody marvellous.

The ink had been dry for three years or so on the Good Friday agreement when The Lieutenant of Inishmore first appeared on stage. However it was actually written in 1994, and is set in 1993, the year of the Harrods, Warrington, Bishopgate and Shankhill Road bombings. Yet by the end of that year British PM John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds were able to sign the Joint Declaration of Peace, the beginning of the end of the Troubles. Now some halfwit Brexiteers public school jape puts this all at risk, amongst so many other things. Remember it is now near 600 days since the power sharing assembly which forms the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed and the threat of a return to direct rule looms without any agreement. Meanwhile the Northern Ireland Secretary freely admits she knew nothing about politics in the country ahead of being appointed. Anyway, calm down Tourist. Back to the culture.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore, in common with many other of Mr McDonagh’s works, uses extreme violence to show that violence is no solution to argument or injustice, whether personal or political. “A violent play that is whole-heartedly anti-violence” as its author described it. Mad Padraic is a terrorist who is so brutal that he has been booted out of the IRA and even the INLA. We first encounter him torturing a suspected drug dealer until interrupted by the news from back home in Inishmore that his cat Wee Thomas is ill. Let’s just say havoc ensues thereafter. The play is a satire on Irish terrorism, for sure, on political violence more generally, and especially on the kind of beliefs, and the fanatical rhetoric and sanctimonious moral superiority underpinning them, that justify mindless butchery by the believers.

It is brutal, callous but also very funny. The idea of a revenge comedy is hardly new: I think this is the best way to interpret Titus Andronicus and its forebears for example (Titus Andronicus at the Barbican Theatre review ****). Or the films of Quentin Tarantino. To squeeze this many laughs out of the situation though, whilst clearly conveying your message, takes extraordinary writing skill.

It also needs a skilful cast to strike the right tone and pace. Now I don’t think it will come as much of a surprise when I tell you that I was probably one of the few members of the audience who wasn’t there to gaze upon the undoubted charms of Aidan Turner as Padraic. Indeed, following a late substitution. the SO stood down to be replaced by LD. The LD has not yet been meaningfully exposed to the genius of Mr McDonagh, unlike the rest of the family, nor frankly is she a fan (yet) of that Poldark. But she can see the fella is gorgeous, I assured here it would make her laugh and the political context was right up her academic street. She thought it was brilliant. And that remember from a youth who is very suspicious of both Dad and the “theatre”.

She was right. This is a brilliant production. And that is due in no small part to the charisma of Aidan Turner. Mr Turner’s stage career has been hijacked by the TV roles and this is effectively his first major role outside of Dublin. He is very, very good, toning down Padraic’s sadism and dialling up his childish sentimentality, so I hope we don’t have to wait too long for his next outing. This is not just about him however. Denis Conway as Padraic’s father Donny, Chris Walley in his stage debut as the hapless Davey and Charlie Murphy as Davey’s sister, and budding “freedom-fighter” and Padriac’s soulmate, Mairead, are all mightily impressive. The set from Michael Grandage’s regular collaborator Christopher Oram is revealed to be an exact replica of the family cottage in every detail even as it is splattered with lashings of blood.

 

 

 

Quiz at the Noel Coward Theatre review *****

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Quiz

Noel Coward Theatre, 2nd June 2018

Your starter for ten. (I know I am mixing up my quiz show formats). Why where there empty seats at the Saturday evening performance of Quiz that the Tourist attended alongside the SO, BUD and KCK? Reviews for the original production at the Chichester Minerva, and this transfer, were very good with a couple of exceptions, playwright James Graham is a one man hit machine and the content, whilst parochial in some ways, the story of the “Coughing Major” is a very British affair, is still centred on a game show with global reach. If I were a tourist, as opposed to a Tourist, or a local wanting a good night out, I would be hard pressed to top it. It is a superb entertainment, very funny yet provocative enough to make you really think. Still the run is nearly over, so my comments, as ever, can be safely ignored, but if this does get another outing I can highly recommend it, even if, or maybe especially if, you or any of your chums are normally reluctant theatre goers.

With This House, Finding Neverland, Ink (Ink at the Almeida Theatre review *****) and Labour of Love (Labour of Love at the Noel Coward Theatre review *****), and a string of other plays, James Graham has developed a prodigious Midas touch for popular, witty, effervescent theatre which usually takes “real” events from the recent(ish) past and dissects them to offer lessons for our world today. The drama and cyclicality of politics, threats to the democratic process, the nature and manipulation of “truth”, the power and reach of the media, flaws in the dispensation of justice, the creeping ubiquity of technology, the rise of celebrity culture, the relationship between state, institutions and the individual. These are all fertile areas of concern for most contemporary dramatists but few churn out plays that are as light on their feet as James Graham. I happen to think he is one of our finest living playwrights though I get that some may be a little snippy about his commercial success and the ease with which the muse comes to him.

Quiz takes the story of Major Charles Ingram, (via a book by Bob Woffinden and James Plasskett), who was one of the handful of million pound winners on the British version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. It skips through the history of British Quiz show formats, the genesis of a programme combining big money and high drama, the bizarre “plot” that led to the “win”, the subsequent court case, the lives of the individuals involved and the media reaction. We the audience are asked to vote at the interval, and then again at the end, after some of the details of the case are revealed, having been knowingly manipulated. Just like a TV quiz show. The play toys with our own recollection of the events, (sorry kids if this was before your time), reminding us that memory is uncertain and constructed. It taps in to our obsessions with competition and the notion of winners and losers. It shows the damage that is wrought through hysterical “trial by media”.

Robert Jones’s garish set is a bright lights version of the Millionaire studio, with a “light cube” of sorts taking centre stage. This doubles up as the home of the Ingrams, a pub for quizzes and nefarious meetings of various Millionaire obsessives and as courtroom. The set, the story and the structure of the play demand a high octane production and boy do we get that with Daniel Evans’s direction. The proscenium Noel Coward stage may not be ideally suited to this set-up, (the thrust of the smaller Minerva probably made more sense), and all the frenetic activity, and mic-ing, drowns out some nuances of performance, but hey, this is what you get with JG’s plays. Lighting designer Tim Lutkin, sound designers Ben and Max Ringham and video designer Tim Reid certainly earned their corn here.

The whole cast also has to be on its toes. Kier Charles as the hyperactive warm up act, as TV quiz hosts from the past, and especially as an exaggerated version of Chris Tarrant is hilarious. Paul Bazeley and particularly Sarah Woodward, who has a powerful monologue near the end, also shone when playing the opposing QCs. Gavin Spokes just about managed to get away with an air of bumbling, stiff upper lip, vulnerability for Charles Ingram that allowed us to maybe accept that here was a man wronged as details of the court case emerged. Conversely Stephanie Street managed to show a buried ruthless streak in Diana Ingram. Mark Meadows as erstwhile coughing accomplice Tecwen Whittock seemed harmless but was plainly desperate to win. That was my reading. You might have a different interpretation. That is the point. Maintaining this necessary uncertainty about their motives does mean a bit of an emotional hole at the centre of the play (which is not always the case in other JG hits) but the pay off is the comic dialectic. Did they or didn’t they “cheat”?

Our viewing quartet was in half-time and post match analysis heaven as we tried to piece together our recollection of the “facts” of the case, the detail of what had been presented in the play and whether we could “trust” this and how our sympathies had changed. BUD craves objective verification. In contrast The Tourist has spent way too much time in the theatre so he barely knows how to distinguish art from reality any more. The wiser heads of the ladies prevailed. We laughed a lot. All in all just what you want from a night at the theatre.

The justice system is not a branch of light entertainment. Truth is not relative – as some important historian said about WWI I think, Belgium did not invade Germany. The institutional structures that we derive from the Classical world by way of the Enlightenment are still the best we have. We the people still have agency. There are two participants in a narrative, speaker and listener. But we need to be critical, keep thinking and exercise our power. What better way to remind us than with a “real” story made up on a stage which beguiles and provokes us with the very concepts it wishes us to question.

Frozen at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ****

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Frozen

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 8th March 2018

I see the Theatre Royal Haymarket is up for sale. Or rather a 70 year odd lease from the Crown Estate, a pernickety landlord, but one who has preserved the beautiful Nash terraces around Regents Park, and is slowing upgrading the built environment along Regent Street which looks a lot less sh*tty than it did 30 years ago.

I would love to buy it but I guess 20 quid won’t cut it. I assume that one of the big West End theatre companies, ATG, NIMAX or Delfont Mackintosh, will get its hands on it. I hope the new owners don’t tamper with the repertoire too much though I guess the family wouldn’t be selling up if they were minting it. A London home for that part of the RSC’s output which doesn’t get taken to the Barbican, and an opportunity for established directors and big name actors to tackle slightly more challenging work. Like Albee’s Goat last year (The Goat, or Who is Sylvia at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review *****), the less successful revival of Venus in Fur and now Bryony Lavery’s challenging Frozen. In years gone by we’ve had some Bond, Beckett, Shakespeare and Stoppard. Looking forward we have the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg bowling up in all their splendour and a French/English Tartuffe.

TRH, along with the Harold Pinter Theatre just round the corner, (ATG, and hosting the transfer of the the NT production of Nina Raine’s Consent from 18th May with a new cast), the Wyndham’s (Delfont Mackintosh) and the Garrick (NIMAX) at the bottom of Charing Cross Road, as well as the Duke of York’s (ATG) and Noel Coward (Delfont Mackintosh) next door on St Martin’s Lane, are pretty much all you need in term of “proper” theatre in the West End, including most successful transfers from the subsidised sector. Maybe the Playhouse (ATG) and the Gielgud (Delfont Mackintosh) as well.

The Grade 1 listed Regency TRH though is my favourite. The stuccoed front elevation looks like the real deal with its beautiful portico with six elegant Corinthian columns. The theatre was designed by none other than John Nash and dates from 1821 having replaced the previous incumbent which was built in 1720. It acquired its royal patent in 1776 joining its namesake in Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House. We were lucky enough to see Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg with Simon Russell Beale in 2015, at the Hampstead Theatre, not here, which tells the fascinating story of the TRH’s founding.

The bars in the TRH don’t look like an afterthought, loos are adequate and legroom is very good throughout. The Tourist has found plenty of lovely seats, from the 900 or so total, to suit his needs here, something he can’t necessarily say about the other theatres mentioned above. Outside of the balcony, the seats are comfy and in everything bar the very back of the stalls, and one or two by the wall in the dress circle, sight-lines are very good. The space is airy enough to accommodate the gold-leaf plastered on every surface of the beautifully maintained neo-classical interior, and the blue upholstery creates a much more balanced aesthetic when compared to bog-standard red.

So any theatre buyers reading this, by which I mean buyers of theatres, not tickets, I would snap up the TRH, however onerous the lease clauses.

What about Frozen I hear you ask. I will resist the urge to make the customary joke about kids getting a little bit confused by the absence of Queen Else belting out Let It Go. For Frozen, as I am sure you know, deals with a serial killer, Ralph played by Jason Watkins ,who sexually assaults and murders Rhona, the 10 year old daughter of Nancy, played here by Suranne Jones. Our speaking cast is completed by Nina Sosanya who plays Agnetha, the American psychiatrist who studies the case. The play essentially asks whether those who commit such crimes are born “evil” and whether they can, in any way, be forgiven.

So it is strong stuff and director Jonathan Munby and designer Paul Wills don’t pull any punches. Ms Lavery’s play was lauded when it first appeared in 1998 at the Birmingham Rep and garnered awards at the NT in 2002 and on Broadway in 2004. It hasn’t popped up again in London, perhaps not a surprise given the sIt is very well researched and emotionally powerful as you would expect though it does come over as a little calculated, with the Agnetha character slightly forced. When it is good though, it is very, very good. It is constructed initially from short monologues, later moving to dialogue between Agnetha and Ralph as she studies him, a meeting between Agnetha and Nancy and finally a meeting in prison between Nancy and Ralph himself where she offers forgiveness.

None of this would work if the audience were not totally convinced by Ralph. It probably isn’t any surprise that Jason Watkins delivered. I don’t mean to suggest that this will have been an easy role for him to inhabit, just that his TV performance as the teacher Christopher Jeffries who was wrongly accused of murder, suggested to me that his technique might prove suited. I was not however prepared for just how good he is in this. With his flattened West Midlands vowels, his false pride in his “logistical” skills, his pedantic explanation of events and his extreme temper he seemed to me to be the embodiment of the “banality of evil”. He is chilling, yes, undeniably odd, but also believably humdrum and, on the surface, quite affable. Detail after detail, his description of the van he uses to abduct his victims, the way he engages them in conversation, the appalling scene where he is displaying his paedophile videotapes, the explosions of anger in prison, leave the audience revulsed, of course, but compelled to watch more.

It is hard for Suranne Jones to match this. The play probably works better in a much smaller space. Director, and the design team, understandably want to fill the TRH stage, conjuring up projections of brain scans, assorted “frozen” images, ghostly images of Rhonda, and the like, wheeling props on and off with each scene change, as well as some unsubtle soundscapes. This all proves a little too bold I think, and Ms Jones has the most difficulty in projecting the incomprehension and grief that consumes Nancy for over twenty years, out into the audience. It is a bit easier for Nina Sosanya to highlight Agnetha’s contention that Ralph’s behaviour reflects his damaged neurological make-up, given much of this is delivered in the form of imagined scientific lectures. She also has some opportunity to show lighter moments, though we learn later on that she too is grieving over her own loss.

So no doubt this is a very good play, sympathetically delivered by a fine trio of actors. The direction might be a little heavy handed, and the space a little cavernous for what is an intense, episodic chamber piece, but it is well worth seeing. Particularly if you snap up some of the cheaper seats on the day. Just make sure everyone in your party is up to speed on the content.

 

Labour of Love at the Noel Coward Theatre review *****

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Labour of Love

Noel Coward Theatre, 15th November 2017

The Tourist is wracked with guilt. A couple of lovely women who were sat next to him asked his opinion at the interval as to whether James Graham’s Ink or Labour of Love was the better play. He said Ink. By the time this was finished he had changed his mind. Ink is a fabulous play (Ink at the Almeida Theatre review *****), don’t get me wrong, with superb performances and a delightful set, but Labour of Love is funnier, and, in its own way, quite moving. There are one or two occasions where Mr Graham’s script goes for the easy laugh, or is slightly too blunt in terms of characterisation, but as in his other plays, all is forgiven because of the sheer level of entertainment which is delivered.

Two plays in the West End, Quiz playing in Chichester (and surely West End bound), This House embarking on a national tour next year, a commission, The Culture: A Farce in Two Acts, for Hull Truck in the pipeline and, I bet, some revivals of his earlier Finborough Theatre plays will pop up. It seems the boy wonder can do no wrong.

That’s because he has the gift. Writing consistently very funny plays, with real dramatic momentum, gentle formal innovation, about relatively recent events, which manage to examine big and important issues, (the way power is wielded in our modern democracy), and which pack in the punters, is not easy. Otherwise everyone would be at it. Yet James Graham makes it look effortless. And he is in the groove. No doubt about that.

Labour of Love charts the course of the Labour Party through the seven General Elections from 1992 through to 2017. The wheeze is that the first half shows events in reverse, the second then rolls forward again. Martin Freeman plays David Lyons, an initially ambitious Blairite, who is tasked in 1990 by Party HQ with fighting a “safe” Labour seat in Nottinghamshire, near where he was brought up. His ambitious lawyer wife Elizabeth, (well played by Rachael Stirling, given the somewhat one-dimensional hand she was dealt), initially intends being his constituency agent but is reluctant. In steps Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Greig) who was married to Terry, the previous MP before he became ill. She knows the ropes and is Nottinghamshire through and through. The MP and his inherited agent then play out, over the years, the struggles between the left and the right of the Labour party, the democratic socialists and the social democrats, against the backdrop of a Northern town that falls further and further behind through the 1990s and 2000s.

The relationship between David and Jean is alternately wittingly combative and awkwardly tender and is, eventually, consummated (don’t worry, not literally). Kwong Loke plays Mr Shen a Chinese industrialist who might prove the town’s employment salvation, Susan Wokoma is Margot Midler ,who is roped in as a local activist, and Dickon Tyrell is Len Prior, council member, old school Labour and, for a time, Jean’s second husband.

You have to feel sorry for Sarah Lancashire who was initially cast as Jean but had to withdraw on doctor’s advice. Her loss however was Tamsin Greig’s gain. And ours. Jean is an absolute peach of a role. And Ms Greig, who might be our greatest current comic stage actress, literally wolfs it up. She is marvellous. As with her Malvolia at the National before this (Twelfth Night at the National Theatre review ****) it is not just that she is a master of timing but that she can connect with the whole audience wherever she is on stage and in whatever she is saying. And, as in Twelfth Night, when the tone shifts so does she. Immediately. And we the audience follow her. Immediately. Martin Freeman is equally at home as David, in particular when he gets to deliver a rousing soliloquy, on the virtue of pragmatic Government rather than the sanctimony of permanent Opposition, which saw the audience break into spontaneous applause.

This is a joint production between Michael Grandage and Jeremy Herrin’s Headlong with the latter in the director’s chair. He may have misfired a little with Common at the National, but he is back on form here having previously brought This House to life. Lee Newby’s set is as workaday as you like and a big call out to wig and hair director Richard Mawbey, who convincingly took the leads backwards and forwards through the three decades. Also vital in plotting the history is the video and projection design of Duncan Maclean and the master sound designer Paul Arditti has some fun with the soundtrack.

Labour of Love. Labour of course, that is the subject. Labour of Love because it is pretty clear where James Graham’s sympathies lie, though he scrupulously avoids the soapbox. Labour of Love as a pun on his writing skill maybe, as this feels like it was anything but a struggle to create. And Labour of Love because David and Jean’s witty sparring has more than an air of Benedick and Beatrice about it. A popular playwright, banging out the texts, selling out the theatres, engaged with the politics of the day, making us laugh, (sometimes with the most obvious of material), and making us think. It worked five hundred years ago. It is working for James Graham now. Maybe this is the lost Love’s Labours Won.