My favourite lockdown theatre so far and to look forward to

If you are, like me, a well-to-do theatre nut, missing the real thing, trying, unlike me, to fit in the panicking, worrying, exercising, zooming, reading, binge watching, baking, eating, on-line shopping, goal-satisfying, caring, and maybe working, then you have probably already been overwhelmed by the streaming opportunities already served up in the last few weeks. This plethora is easy enough to track via the MSM and WWW but less easy to watch with certainty of satisfaction what with all these other calls on your time.

Which is where the Tourist comes in. A professional loafer, all he has had to do is swap a seat in the many London, and elsewhere, theatres for his own armchair, saving tine, and a few quid on transport, which can usefully be donated to those very theatres whose need is greatest. Of course, however well filmed, these broadcasts are no substitute for the real thing, as I am sure you will have realised. Theatre is a collective enterprise, a shared experience, which comes alive with performance.

Even so there have been, and there are set to be, some absolutely belting productions coming to a screen right next to you. (OK some some have come and gone but all the more reasons not to miss what is in store). Here are some of my favourites, (just theatre though I have been gingerly dipping into the bucketload of opera that is also available). So dump those Netflix box sets and get cultured. Oh. and don’t be shy about turning on the subtitles. Not just for the foreign stuff. This is your chance to watch Shakespeare with all the text and nail the plots so that next time you can nod or chuckle knowingly at points of verse detail and savour the Bard’s, and the creative team’s, extraordinary insight into the human condition. Thus becoming a true luvvie.

(N.B. No order implied here. Just chronological and reflecting the fact that I can’t seem to format the list in WordPress. Those who have had the misfortune to work with the Tourist will be painfully aware of his technological shortcomings, most tellingly when they are stood at his shoulder, eyes rolling, as he adopts the most inefficient strategy possible for manipulating information on screen).

Best watches so far

  1. Fragments. Beckett by Brook. From Theatre Bouffes des Nord. Rough for Theatre I/Rockaby/Act Without Words II/Neither/Come and Go. Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne’s collection of Beckett miniatures, from a cast of specialists, Jos Houben, Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni. If you thought Beckett was a load of miserable, impenetrable twaddle, think again. This is hilarious and never outstays its welcome. Well maybe not true for Rough for Theatre I. Still available on their Vimeo channel.
  2. It’s True. It’s True, It’s True by Breach Theatre. So I finally had tickets for this at the Barbican with the intention of taking BD along. So very pleased to see the production popped up on line when the tour had to be cancelled. Had heard good things about it and I can confirm that it delivers on its promise. The Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at the National Gallery has been postponed though I gather one fine day us Brits will still get our chance to survey the work of this most talented Caravaggisti/feminist icon. Her story and her influence are undeniable though the power and beauty of the paintings takes your breath away even before you get into the interpretation. Bar the Capodimonte in Naples you have to get about a bit to see many of her 60 0dd attributed works though so this UK first is set to be unmissable. Anyway you culture vultures will already know all about her. In ITx3 Breach Theatre, Billy Barrett, Ellice Stevens, Ellie Claughton and Dorothy Allen-Pickard, here joined by cast members Kathryn Bond, Sophie Steer and Harriet Webb, convert the verbatim Latin and Italian texts of AG’s 1612 rape trial into modern vernacular, and turn it into hard-hitting drama, complete with lessons on key paintings. It’s brilliant. It was on I Player for a bit but is now available elsewhere: try the New Diorama site. And slip the company a few quid so that they can keep making theatre of this quality.
  3. The Crucible. Old Vic Theatre. I missed Yael Farber’s lauded production from the Old Vic in 2014 with a cast led by Richard Armitage and Anna Madeley. Ms Farber’s moody atmospherics and precise point-making don’t always work. Here they do though. faultlessly. OK so it is one of my favourite ever plays but this is the best thing I have seen in recent weeks. 8 quid to rent from Digital Theatre but worth every penny.
  4. An Enemy of the People. Schaubuhne Berlin. And here is the second best watch. SB has been extremely generous with its offering even for those of us no German speakers. What with Beware of Pity, Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch’s take on Orlando which couldn’t make it to the Barbican, Thomas Ostermeier’s full on Hamlet with Lars Eidimger doing his best bonkers gurning and, most recently, TO’s Hedda Gabler, with Katharina Schuttler brilliant as a bored child-woman Hedda. Best of the lot though was the wunderkind director’s take on another Ibsen classic, An Enemy of the People. Dialogue, even in translation, utterly contemporary without missing a beat from HI’s argument. Wild Duck might just edge it for best Ibsen ever in my book but, with AEOTP, as a satire on the complexity of morality, despite, or perhaps even because of, the alarming twist in Stockman’s public positioning, few writers have come close before or since. Done properly all Ibsen should knot up stomach and mind and Ostermeier and company cut straight to the chase here. Just wish I could understand the debate between audience and cast, in character, when the fourth wall is cracked for the Act IV town meeting scene. The production was banned in China when it toured in 2018. Nuff said. Unfortunately all these SB productions are one night only affairs but I urge you to keep your eye on the programme.
  5. Frankenstein. National Theatre. Missed this in 2011 so ecstatic when NT added it to their list. You might disagree with the balance of the themes from Mary Shelley’s original which Nick Dear’s adaptation focussed on, and with the somewhat episodic structure, but hey you have to agree that Danny Boyle can put on a show. And the lads Cumberbatch and, only marginally less so, Lee Miller, know their way round a stage. The rest of the NT At Home season, The Twelfth Night, with that performance from Tasmin Greig, Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre and One Man, Two Guvnors, (though it did lose a bit from live stage to screen I admit), all delighted, and I am about to catch up with Antony and Cleopatra, but they count for less as I had seem them all in the flesh as it were.

There have been a few other highlights. Caryl Churchill’s menacing Far Away from the Donmar which we missed live, Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott with Sophie Melville available on Digital Theatre, Simon Godwin’s RSC production of Two Gentleman of Verona, (SG may just be the best Shakespearean director right now), available on that Marquee TV, Imitating the Dog’s labour of love with their Night of the Living Dead REMIX, (available on a pay what you like basis), though the filming of the filming of the acting of a film dilutes its impact a little, and the RSC Richard II with David Tennant, also on Marquee TV. Oh and last night’s revisit of Christopher Luscombe’s RSC Much Ado About Nothing, (or Love’s Labours Won as he would have it), on BBC I Player. All did the business.

On the watch-list

What next? A few recommendations first based on prior watches, so the Tourist can confirm their quality.

  1. The Phyllida Lloyd/Harriet Walter all female Donmar Shakespeare trilogy (The Tempest, Henry IV and Julius Caesar) from the Donmar. No need to enact the kettling pre-performance that was feature of the Kings Cross version. Digital Theatre or Marquee TV take your pick.
  2. Melly Still’s RSC Cymbeline also on both DT and MTV. Ms Still, with her heart on sleeve, gender switching, state of the nation, physical theatre remake manages to, just about, make something out of one of big Will’s more puzzling creations.
  3. The Encounter from Complicite. The genius who is Simon McBurney takes you on a full on sensory journey into the heart of darkness. This was, literally, made for headphones so should convert well in the at-home experience. On the Complicite website from 15th May for a week.
  4. A Doll’s House from the Lyric Hammersmith. For one night only on the 20th May on the Lyric’s YouTube channel. Tanika Gupta’s resetting of Ibsen’s proto-feminist classic to 1879 Calcutta lends depth and resonance.
  5. Barber Shop Chronicles from the NT. All of the next 4 NT offerings look unmissable to me. If you haven’t seen Inua Ellam’s vibrant BSC you are in for a treat. On the NT YT channel from 14th May.
  6. This House from the NT. If you liked James Graham’s Quiz on ITV recently then don’t miss what he does best. Recent(ish) political history as comedy. TH tracks the minority Labour government in the 1970s showing how our political class is doomed to repeat itself. From 28th May.

And here are the pick of the productions that are new to me and about which I am very excited.

  1. A Streetcar Named Desire from the Young Vic. From 21st May for a week through the NT At Home initiative this is Benedict Andrew’s sprawling interpretation of Tennessee Williams’s magnum opus from 2014 which, inexplicably, I was too late to get a ticket for and, idiotically, dismissed watching in the cinema.
  2. Coriolanus from the Donmar Warehouse. Ditto the above. Missed out because of work and other stuff and have been desperate to see this ever since. Coriolanus is just one of my absolute favourite Shakespeare’s and Josie Rourke’s economical take has sone fella called Tom Hiddleston in the title role and a bonkers-ly luxuriant cast around him. From 4th June vis the NT again. I cannot wait.
  3. Ghosts from the Almeida. Available on Digital Theatre. This is the Richard Eyre production with the peerless Lesley Manville, alongside Jack Lowden and Will Keen, which belts through Ibsen’s grimmest family tale in 90 minutes. That’s my happy place evening viewing sorted.

Enjoy. And donate. So that the theatre will still be there when we get out of this pickle.

Beckett Trilogy at the Jermyn Street Theatre review ****(and some other at-home Beckett stuff)

Beckett Trilogy: Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe, The Old Tune

Jermyn Street Theatre, 4th February 2020

Fragments: Beckett by Brook – Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither , Come and Go – VIMEO, Bouffes du Nord – 26th March 2020

Endgame/Rough for Theatre II – Digital Theatre, Old Vic – 9th April 2020

Having put in countless theatre hours over the last few years the Tourist feels ready to get to grips with another of the “writers who changed theatre” in the form of one Samuel Beckett. Anyone with a passing interest in culture generally, and theatre particularly, is going to have encountered the great Irishman, but, to the uninitiated like me his reputation is fearsome. Still no time like the present.

Especially when the equally fearsome Peter Brooke, similarly ascetic and similarly a Parisian expat, has kindly posted up a recording of his (and Marie-Helene Estienne’s) production of Fragments: Beckett by Brook from the Bouffes du Nord in 2018 (and last in London in 2008). I have had a couple of cracks at Mr Brooke and Ms Estienne’s oeuvre with mixed success, Battlefield at the Young Vic, their take on The Mahabharata, and The Prisoner at the NT, both works of elongated, and exacting, beauty. Fragments comprises five short pieces by Beckett, Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither and Come and Go, performed by, drum roll please, Kathryn Hunter, Jos Houben and Marcello Magni. Jacques Lecoq alumni, and all round stage acting royalty, especially when it comes to the tough, avant garde-y stuff.

Now it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Beckett, in addition to posing questions about language, memory, purpose, mortality, despair, isolation, confinement, observation, connection, indeed, the whole futility, with tenacity, of human existence and nature-of-the-self gig, liked a laugh, especially of the mordant, and/or gallows absurd, kind. Which is what PB and the three actors mine in Fragments. It isn’t too much of a leap from this to Python. Honestly. Of course it helps that Belgian actor Jos Houben is peerless as a physical comedy theatre actor, that Kathryn Hunter is the very definition of “shape-shifter”, (whatever you do do not miss an opportunity to see her on stage, most recently in the RSC Timon of Athens), and that Marcello Magni was a founder member of Complicite, (the other two are regular collaborators), about as innovative a theatre company as it gets. Oh, and he was also the voice of Pingu.

Rough for Theatre I is probably the trickiest customer on the bill. A blind beggar, busking on his fiddle, teams up with another chap who has lost a leg. Both reference past lovers/carers/family. They might be abandoned. They search for food. Mutual support turns to annoyance and, maybe, violence. A lot of the classic Beckett stuff is on show, a couple of cranky fellas bound in uneasy interdependence. But it doesn’t quite persuade and turns into a long, old 20 minutes.

Rockaby, with the archetypal old woman, W, in a rocking chair, the ghostly vibe, the simple, pre-recorded, dimeter verse echoing a lullaby, the hypnotic stresses and repetitions, (each of the four sections begins with “more”), the gradual withdrawal of W from the world, and her eventual death, is a work that most definitely does work. Especially in the hands, and eyes, and mouth, of Kathryn Hunter. There isn’t much here to express, but express she does, packing all manner of emotion into less than 10 minutes. Fuck life as W says. But do it gently.

Act Without Words II, like its companion piece, and the likes of Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape was written ion the 1950s, but unlike them it is a mime piece. Two fellas, of course, emerge consecutively from sacks on stage after being prodded by a large pole, before engaging in their, presumably daily, routines. One is chaotic, a hypochondriac, the other fastidious, a clock-watcher. A recipe for audience bemusement? You might think so from the sound of it, but, in the hands of Messrs Houten and Magni, it is hilarious, Laurel and Hardy-esque, one of the funniest things I have seen on stage. With Rockaby and now this I think I can see the attraction of Beckett.

And Come and Go only added to the attraction. Three middle-aged women, Flo, Vi and Ru, friends since childhood, Houten and Magni decked out with coats, hats and a bit of rouge, sit on a bench, natter, and then, as each moves away in turn, a whispered secret something is exchanged between the remaining pair. At the end they link hands in the “old way”, a Celtic knot. I can imagine this scenario might come across as foreboding, a reference to incipient illness or death, we don’t actually hear the secrets, but in this production it is comic, the whispers more gossipy or bitching. More Cissie and Ada (google it) than “staring into the void”. After all we all like to chide our friends behind their backs with our other friends in the guise of concern.

Neither is a poem of sorts, just 87 words, in ten lines, with apparently just 3 commas. That’s minimalism for you. It is some kind of dialectical journey, maybe to death, who knows. Kathryn Hunter can’t make its meaning clear but blimey does she make every word count.

All in all then highly recommended (it’s still on Vimeo). How all the little tragi-comic stuff can shed a light on all the big stuff which rattles around in our heads. Not, as Peter Brooke says, wall to wall despair and pessimism as Beckett reputation dictates. And showing how the best actors can reveal, even to the dubious like the Tourist, that there is more to Beckett than initially meets the eye, and ear.

On to Endgame. Or to be more precise Rough for Theatre I and then Endgame. From the Old Vic. Now my scheduled performance was a casualty of you know what but the nice people at the Old Vic offered up a filmed version of the production which I snapped up. Now, before the interruption, the draw of Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming, had ensured brisk business for something relatively challenging judging by the wait it took me to secure my favourite perch. For Endgame, Fin de partie in the original French, (the language Beckett always initially used), does jog on a bit coming in at 80 minutes. It is bracketed up there with the likes of Waiting for Godot in the Beckett canon, and, whilst the critics response to the production was decidedly mixed, there was enough to make me gently expectant.

I have to say didn’t really get on with it though. Whether this was down to play or to performance, it is difficult to say. Having now see what PR and M-HE could do with Beckett in Fragments, (and, as you will see below, what Trevor Nunn was able to serve up in his Beckett trilogy), I think the director, here Richard Jones, might have been culpable. True the director’s freedom to interpret is proscribed by the still vice-like grip exerted by the Beckett estate, demanding compliance with the great man’s stage directions, and by the stripping away of realist anchors, the lack of plot, the minimalist aesthetic and so on. Even so I still think the thematic repetition, this really is about four troubled souls going round in circles, and the skill of certain the actors, left Mr Jones only really scratching the surface.

Alan Cumming played Hamm, confined to a chair, (with a rather distracting pair of fake stick-thin beanie legs on permanent display), with a splenetic camp which at first amused but soon curdled. And Daniel Radcliffe, who to his credit, seeks out acting challenges in an almost penitent way since the screen Potter juggernaut was wound up, is similarly one-dimensional as restless servant/foundling Clov. I am afraid he does’t really seem to get with the profundity, opting for a superficial humour in word and deed. The two don’t feel that they have spent an eternity locked together. Contrast this with Karl Johnson and Jane Horrocks, (with facial prosthetics which really do convince), as Magg and Nell, Hamm’s parents, living in wheelie bins downstage left. Much less to say, but by not trying to grasp for comedy that isn’t there, both convey far more .

In order to get under the surface of “life is absurd”, and “in the midst of death we are in life”, (or maybe it’s the other way round), I think I can see that creatives need to delve a bit deeper. If all we see is the outward character, like a realist play, here Hamm as childish despot “actor” doing a turn primarily for himself, or Clov as mild-mannered extra from the Ministry of Silly Walks, it just become too much hard work to listen to what Beckett was saying. I am guessing the existential bitterness at the core of Endgame really is the deal but having the confidence to see that through feels like a big ask. As Hamm says “nothing is funnier than unhappiness” but only I guess if you don’t try too hard to make it too funny in the first place. I will need to try again with the play to test the theory or to accept that it could just be that I simply don’t have the patience to see it through in which case, mea culpa.

As it happens I preferred Rough for Theatre II. Two bureaucrats, Bertrand and Morvan, are in a room assessing the evidence as to whether would be suicide Croker, (Jackson Milner standing stock still for half an hour with his back to us – bravo fella), should jump or not. There is a contrast between the two, Cumming’s Bertrand is sweary, impulsive, keen to crack on, Radcliffe’s Morvan, more measured, though indecisive. The scenario is milked for gags as it echoes the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life, Here Comes Mr Jordan and A Matter of Life and Death from the 1940s. Croker might have been rejected, he might be ill, he might be a tortured artist. The comments of the various witnesses from Croker’s life are mostly banal, only occasionally poignant or profound. The banter between B and V edges towards Shakespearean wordplay, as well as the more visible vaudeville. The end is ambiguous. It could be Pinter, which is probably why I much preferred it

Right finally to the Jermyn Street trilogy. Sorry that took so long but this is how I learn. Firstly the intimacy of the JST served these plays very well especially Krapp’s Last Tape and Eh Joe. Secondly the cast. David Threlfall, James Hayes, Niall Buggy and, even if in voice only, Lisa Dwan have the measure of Beckett. It is rare to see Lisa Dwan’s name in print without the words “foremost Beckett interpreter/scholar” appended, (Not I, the one with the mouth, is her particular Beckett party piece), though she has plenty of other heavyweight acting credits to her name in Ireland and elsewhere, as does fellow Irish actor Niall Buggy. David Threlfall is just an all round top geezer, last seen on stage as the RSC Don Quixote, who has played Beckett on screen, albeit in the hit and miss comedy series Urban Myths. James Hayes has been treading the boards for as long as the Tourist has been mortal, and collaborated with Trevor Nunn at the JST in radio play All That Fall in 2012 with Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon.

Understandably the Beckett estate rates Trevor Nunn, now 80. He is, after all, pretty much the Father of the House when it comes to theatre direction. Unlike Richard Jones whose USP is showy, scatter-gun, (though often brilliant), opera. Max Pappenheim is able to conjure up a sound design with real impact in a space he knows well and I assume David Howe, normally to be found lighting up the West End, said yes straight away when he got the Nunn call. The monochrome world, specified for Krapp’s Last Tape, persists throughout. Old age and memory is what links the three works. What four old men remember and what they forget.

Krapp’s Last Tape, from 1958, the year after Endgame, was big draw here, with James Hayes, literally, in the chair. Krapp on his 69th birthday, and sporting a natty pair of snakeskin shoes, sets out to make a tape (reel-to-reel kids, ask Grandad, though make sure it is by phone) documenting the last year and to review a similar tape he made when he was 39, made after he had returned from celebrating that birthday in the pub. This tape mocks the commentary of another tape he made in his mid twenties. He is more interested in the definition of the word “viduity” than the death of his mother. (The table is piled up with tapes, a ledger and the dictionary). Some memories annoy him, others, notably a romantic tryst in a punt, enchant him. The 39 year old is confident in the choices he has made, the 69 year old full of regret, notably in his writing. Is this his “final” tape?

Beckett was 52 when he wrote it. You can read whatever you want into it but it seems easy to just take it as autobiography and revel in the power and construction of memory. Failures in love, in work and in drink. It went through many drafts, much like our memories I suppose. The Wiki page is very helpful in fleshing out the characters, real and fictional, mentioned in the monologue and in describing Beckett’s own position at the time of writing.

I can’t pretend I was hanging on every word of James Hayes’s mesmerising performance. but that is because I ended up revisiting my own past in my mind. What better praise can I offer?

Eh Joe is pretty scary. It was SB’s first play for television, first performed in 1966 by Jack MacGowan, for whom it was written, with Sian Philips as The Voice. Joe, in his fifties, is sitting alone on his bed in dressing gown and slippers, with a camera trained on him. He gets up to check windows, curtains, door, cupboard and bed as if in fear. The camera cuts to a close-up of his face from just a metre away which slowly zooms in, nine times, through the remaining 15 minutes or so. Joe is relaxed, though confined, staring at, though not into the camera. Then the voice, here Lisa Dwan, starts hammering away at him, the recording heavily miked, accusatory, recalling their relationship and his abandoning of another woman who attempts suicide. She is the guilt-ridden voice inside his head I guess, the feminine judge of his masculine sin. He has excised the voices of his mother, father and others who may have loved him. The Voice’s words brim with violence. There is Catholic and sexual guilt aplenty. Niall Buggy, for a man who doesn’t speak, is riveting and now I get why Lisa Dwan is so well regarded. Once again it is all about the getting the rhythm and melody of the language to convey interiority.

Lisa Dwan was 12 when she saw Eh Joe on the telly. It stayed with her. I’m not surprised.

Fortunately we were then given a break before The Old Tune, which compared to the two previous plays, was a breeze. Rarely performed, it is a free translation by Beckett of a 1960 radio play, La Manivelle (The Crank) by his Swiss-French mate Robert Pinget. Niall Buggy and David Threlfall are a couple of Dublin old-timers, Gorman and Cream, shooting the breeze on, of course, a bench. They share memories, all the way back to early childhood, but can’t always agree on exactly what. It’s got some laughs.

So that’s that then. No doubt I will be back to Beckett. But for the moment, at least when the performers are on song, memories are made of this ….

A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic review *****

A Very Expensive Poison

Old Vic Theatre, 9th September 2019

Lucy Prebble wrote The Effect, ENRON and The Sugar Syndrome all of which were rightly lauded. She is currently one of the writers on Succession the best thing on the telly in this, or any other, year. And Guardian journalist Luke Harding writes vital books about the modern state, two of which have already been made into films. So this adaptation of his book A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West was always going to be A BIG THING. And so it proved. The Old Vic is always a good place to spy luvvie types on their nights off and the evening we (the SO and the Blonde Bombshells) went was no exception. I won’t say who the Tourist fawned over this time. Just that it was almost as great a pleasure as the play itself.

Now this being Lucy Prebble we were never going to get a straightforward narrative. Even so the sheer invention on/in show was breathtaking. First though a quick reminder of the story. Alexander Litvinenko was an officer of the Russian FSB secret police who specialised in investigating the links between the state and organised crime. In 1998 he and other officers publicly accused their superiors of ordering the assassination of oligarch, and thorn in Putin’s side, Boris Berezovsky. He was acquitted but re-arrested, and when the charges were again dismissed, he fled to London with his family, where he was granted asylum, wrote articles and books accusing the FSB and others of terrorist acts and worked with British intelligence. In November 2006 he suddenly fell ill and was hospitalised. It transpired that he had been poisoned by a lethal radioactive dose of polonium-210. The subsequent British investigation pinned the blame on Andrey Lugovoy a former member of Russia’s Federal Protection Service but he could not be extradited. Litvinenko’s widow Marina, together with biologist Alexander Goldfarb, tirelessly sought justice for her husband and a coroner’s inquiry was set up in 2011. This was eventually, after much foot dragging by the Home Office, (yep one T May was in charge), followed up with a public enquiry which in 2016 conclusively ruled that his murder was sponsored by the FSB and likely conducted with the direct approval of FSB director Nikolai Patrushev and Putin himself.

Not difficult to understand why Luke Harding would want to document this extraordinary story or why Lucy Prebble could see its dramatic potential. The action centres on the indefatigable Marina (MyAnna Buring) and, in a series of slickly staged flash-backs, forwards and sideways, jumping across genres, tackles the who, how and why of the crime. I would be a liar if I can remember all the striking scenes but let’s try a few. The song and dance routine in a quasi brothel led by Peter Polycarpou’s Berezovsky. Amanda Hadingue as Professor Dombey giving a rapid fire 101 lecture on the history of radiation complete with puppets, Tom Brooke’s oddball Alexander Litvinenko serving up deadpan humour from the hospital bed which regularly appears on stage in a thrice, the two incompetent stooges played by Lloyd Hutchinson and Michael Shaeffer sent to carry out the assassination, the super meta-theatricality of Reece Shearsmith’s petulant, but still sinister, Putin commenting unreliably from the Old Vic boxes, the tell-tale trail of radiation handprints, the powerful direct address to the audience from Marina, and, finally, Alexander.

Of course the whole idea is to mess around with the truth in order to show how the modern state messes about with the truth. This near vaudevillian approach to political satire is not especially new (for LP herself), indeed I could imagine Joan Littlewood lapping this text up in the heyday of the Theatre Workshop, but the juxtaposition with such a serious subject is what makes this so interesting and, in some ways, challenging. OK so I can see why some might tire of all the theatrical fun and games but the abrupt shifts in tone, with humour constantly undercutting the serious narrative, worked for us, and, judging by the reaction, the audience including my new celebrity friend.

Bringing all this together will have tested the directorial powers of John Crowley, who has spent most of the last decade on a movie set. However this is the man who brought Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman to the NT stage so this wasn’t going to phase him. Mind you success was in no small measure due to the versatile box set of Tom Scutt, the choreography of Aletta Collins and remarkably nifty stage management from Anthony Field, Jenefer Tait and Ruby Webb.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again. If you want to make a powerful political point in the theatre then humour is your best bet. But it is also the most difficult way to do so. Maybe this isn’t absolutely perfect but given how much Lucy Prebble has gifted us here, as in her previous plays, it is as close as dammit and for that we should be grateful.

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.

All My Sons at the Old Vic Theatre review *****

All My Sons

Old Vic Theatre, 10th May 2019

Take Arthur Miller’s most “Greek” and, probably, most moralising play. Wheel in a couple of Hollywood heavyweights (Bill Pullman and Sally Field, Neve before seen on a UK stage). Add a couple of high recognition and talented Brit actors (Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan). And a supporting cast at the top of its game (Sule Rimi, Gunnar Cauthery, Kayla Meike, Bessie Carter and Oliver Johnstone). Design an entirely naturalistic, picket fenced, clapboard house set (Max Jones) draft an A team for lighting (Richard Howell), sound (Carolyn Downing) and video (Duncan McLean). Put Headlong chief Jeremy Herrin in charge, a man with a proven record of delivering serious, yet still entertaining, popular theatre (This House, Labour of Love, People, Places and Things, The Never, Junkyard and Wolf Hall/Brin up the Bodies). Kick off proceedings at a gentle canter but slowly and surely racket up the tension as the disclosures tumble out and the velocity of the dialogue accelerates. Don’t hold anything back at the end. Mr Miller certainly didn’t.

No surprise then that the Old Vic has a hit on its hands playing to packed houses with no need for the occasional discounting that has dogged a few, very good in my opinion, productions in the last couple of years (notably Fanny and Alexander). If you are to believe the Blonde Bombshells, BUD, KCK and the SO, and you should, this is well deserved. After a near miss with Three Sisters I have the team back in the palm of my booking blind hand.

So what is about the play and production that works so well? The last time I saw it, at the Rose Theatre in 2016, director Michael Rudman took a similar unfussy approach to proceedings, with a near identical set and some strong performances from Penny Downie as Kate Keller, Alex Waldmann as son Chris Keller and David Horovitch as Joe Keller, the “common man” and flawed “hero” of Miller’s tragedy. But it never really caught fire as here.

This is largely down to the quartet of excellent performances at the heart of the play. Though we have had a couple of contrarian opinions elsewhere in the viewing circle that mostly centre on the casting of Bill Pullman as Joe, which I can acknowledge but not agree with.

Bill Pullman started out as a stage actor but, as far as I can see, got sidetracked, as one might, by the big bucks of Hollywood. It is fair to say not everything he has laid down on celluloid has been of the highest quality though, also fair to say, I don’t know most of his films. He does have a very particular style of delivery though which, for me, works to great effect here. The pitch of his performance is pretty much unchanged throughout, but its amplitude is constantly changing. Alternately sympathetic, matey, defensive, aggressive, wheedling underneath the homespun, bumbling exterior, this is a man who who knows one day his secret will break him but continues to deny it even to himself, until right at the end. Sally Field as Kate, is similarly covering up, and therefore refuses to accept that her pilot son Larry died in the war, casting a protective cordon around her family. When she finally “finds out” the truth her impassiveness speaks volumes. In my pretty limited experience the stars of the American big screen generally hold back on stage, (a notable exception being Christian Slater in the recent Glengarry Glen Ross). That’s close-ups for you. It can seen underpowered, (and I wouldn’t want to see this production from up in the gods). Jeremy Herrin tough, with his master of pace, finds a way to turn this to advantage, “naturalising” the exposition of the first act and making the sh*t-hit-fan third act even more devastating

It was a joy to see Jenna Coleman as Ann Deever take to the stage after her phenomenally successful TV career. Her exchanges with Sally Field, as she and Chris seek her approval, are extremely affecting. For me though, Colin Morgan as Chris was the star of the show. Racked with survivor guilt from his brother’s death, and buried anger from his own war experiences, and then seeing his chance of happiness through a life with Ann turn to ashes as his father’s sins, (which deep down I think he knows), are revealed. Mr Morgan, as in Translations at the NT, (though this is a very different role even if he again stands at the centre of the plot), is dynamic and enthralling.

All My Sons first appeared in 1947. AM’s first efforts attracted critical acclaim but his previous Broadway opening in 1944, The Man Who Had All The Luck, was a flop closing after just 4 performances. Thank goodness he didn’t give up. All My Sons doesn’t quite scale the heights of its successors, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge, but, as the standing ovation here demonstrated, (mind you that is par for the course now and no bad thing – these creatives deserve our gratitude), it delivers a whacking great emotional punch to the gut. Maybe not quite as much food for thought or structural elegance as those successors, and there are a few near McGuffins, (that letter), in the plot, but this is what drama is all about. You might occasionally rankle at the way AM controls the flow of information, and elevates dialogue over action, but you’ll still be hanging on every word as you catch up with what the various characters know, don’t know and learn about the central hubris. There’s also the old Miller criticism chestnut of veiled misogyny given that Ann acts primarily as the catalyst of the emerging truth and Kate is seen as somehow manipulating those around here. You might also, as a couple of our crew did, question the end, but, hey, that’s catharsis folks.

Well I didn’t know this. AMS is actually based on a true story which AM’s mother-in-law pointed out about an Ohio based aeronautical company that conspired with army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft engines for military use, eventually leading to a congressional investigation. I can see why this would have piqued AM’s interest. It could accommodate his overarching concern, the corruption of the American Dream, but here his critique of capitalist individualism riding roughshod over socialist collectivism, found an unambiguous moral centre in one family’s story. Whatever one’s political persuasion, putting profit above the safety of young men fighting for their country and for freedom is surely a no-no, but then again sending them to war in the first place shows a remarkable lack of collective intelligence on the part of the human race. Joe made the execrable decision, (or absence of decision), but did he feel the pressure from the military and the ideal of family? Where AM is really smart though is in taking inspiration not just from the Greeks, (All My Sons even strictly obeys the unities of time, place and action), but also from Ibsen, specifically The Wild Duck, where Hakon Werle’s wealth and influence is built on a crime that his former business partner, Old Ekdal, took the rap for.

There is also a pop at the veracity of the legal justice, (both Ann and brother George (Oliver Johnstone) believe their father is guilty and Joe innocent because the investigation said so), the frustrations, resentments and contradictions of “normal” small town America families, the Bayliss’ and the Lubeys,( though at least they don’t have the back story of the Kellers and the Deevers), are exposed, as are class and education. In the end though the story of a man, (or woman), losing, (or finding), their honour has brought us together for thousands of years (as all you GoT fans know). Hard to imagine anything better.

Of course all that was before we went down the road a week later to see The Death of a Salesman. Crikey.

My London theatre recommendations May 2019

Time to update my London theatre recommendations. The last list from February 2019 turned out pretty well and a fair few from that are still available for selection. Now I know I go on a bit, and offer too many options, so I have taken the wider selection below, considered quality, certainty, availability (if they are sold out or won’t be extended they don’t appear) and chronology, and picked out the eight very best which should not be missed IHMO. The first four are tried, tested and, Lehman Trilogy excepted, aren’t too pricey. The final four are classy classics with top-drawer creatives in the saddle.

DO NOT MISS

Sweat – Gielgud Theatre.

Touching the Void – Duke of York’s Theatre.

The Lehman Trilogy– Piccadilly Theatre.

Small Island – National Theatre Olivier.

Blood Wedding– Young Vic.

Noises Off – Lyric Hammersmith.

The Doctor – Almeida Theatre.

Hansard – National Theatre Lyttleton.

**********************************************************

Here then are the selections from the various categories. Enjoy.

ON NOW AND STAMPED WITH THE TOURIST’S APPROVAL

Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Along with Sweat the play of the year so far. Brilliant text, brilliant direction, brilliant cast. The best version I have ever seen. Of course this was always going to be the case so you should have listened to me months ago. Sold out now so the only way to see it will be if/when it transfers. My guess is, if it happens at all, it will end up on Broadway before coming back to London but don’t hold your breath.

Small Island – National Theatre Olivier. If you know the Andrea Levy epic novel about two couples in post war Jamaica and Britain, (or have watched the TV adaptation), you are in for a treat. If you don’t, well you still are. There are tickets left later in the run and, in terms of scale, stagecraft and story, you are definitely getting your money’s worth.

Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre. OK so it probably helps if you are Ibsen trained, and be prepared for the performance from the Stephen Toast school of acting from Tom Burke, but this is a superb production of an under-appreciated play with its finger on lots of pulses – moral, social, gender and political hypocrisies and contradictions . It isn’t jolly though. Plenty of tickets left but try to find a discount.

All My Sons – Old Vic. As with Death of a Salesman I told you so and it has now sold out. Probably Miller’s most moralising play and Bill Pullman’s performance is idiosyncratic for some, but the play is bullet-proof anyway. Will it transfer? Depends on the two Americans. My advice? Make sure next time a classic Miller is reunited with top-drawer cast and creative teams you just buy ahead.

Out of Water – Orange Tree Theatre. A beautifully written and uplifting three hander set in the North East about difference and acceptance. Playwright Zoe Cooper has a light and witty touch and the cast are excellent.

ANNA – National Theatre Dorfman. OK so this has already started but I haven’t seen a review yet. Ella Hickson, who is probably our most talented young playwright, and the Ringham brothers, sound maestros, combine in a tale set in East Berlin in 1968 which the audience will hear through headphones. Think Stasiland and Lives of Others. It is sold out so you will have to sniff out returns on the day.

BOOKING AHEAD AND STAMPED WITH THE TOURIST’S APPROVAL

Sweat – Gielgud Theatre. Transferring after the sell-out run at the Donmar. Lynn Nottage’s conscientiously researched drama about blue collar America is the best play I have seen this year, bar Death of a Salesman, and one of the best in in the last 5 years. Nothing tricksy here just really powerful theatre. The impact of de-industrialisation in the rust belt on three women friends and their families.

Equus – Trafalgar Studios. Just announced. Theatre Royal Stratford East’s superb production of Peter Shaffer’s classic play is transferring. You have to get your head around the concept, the relationship between a damaged young man with an erotic fixation on horses and his psychologist, but you won’t see more committed and exciting staging, direction and performances.

The Lehman Trilogy– Piccadilly Theatre. I told you to see it at the NT last year. If you ignored me, do not make the same mistake twice. An acting masterclass as the three leads take us through the history of the leaders of the eponymous investment bank and thereby the history of America since the mid C19.

Touching the Void – Duke of York’s Theatre. So the tale of Joe Simpson, the mountaineer left for dead by his partner who then survived against all the odds, is a obviously powerfully dramatic, hence his book and the subsequent, superb, film. But the way cast and creatives have then turned this into something that works in a theatre, with just a few props, some flashbacks and some inspired physicality, is marvellous. I saw this in Bristol before it went on tour and can thoroughly recommend it.

YET TO OPEN BUT YOU WOULD BE A MUG NOT TO TAKE THE PLUNGE

Blood Wedding– Young Vic. Lorca’s “not quite the happiest day of their lives” for a couple in rural Spain will be directed by Yael Farber (this should suit her style). The last time the Young Vic did Lorca it was an overwhelming Yerma. It will probably be atmospheric, stylised. angry and emotional.

Bitter Wheat– Garrick Theatre. World premiere of new play by David Mamet about Weinstein with John Malkovich in the lead. Woo hoo.

Noises Off – Lyric Hammersmith. The funniest play ever written returning to the theatre where it premiered in 1982. It may be theoretically possible to make a mess of Michael’s Frayn’s farce in two halves, seen from front of stage and then backstage, but I reckon it is unlikely with director Jeremy Herrin in charge. If you have never seen it you will be stunned by its technical construction and laughs per minute. And just £20 a ticket.

Appropriate – Donmar Warehouse. Branden Jacob-Jenkins take on the dysfunctional American family drama and confront their racist past finally comes to London. No messing with form as in his previous plays (An Octoroon, Gloria) but this young playwright has the knack.

A Very Expensive Poison – Old Vic. Lucy Prebble wrote Enron, one of the best plays of the last decade, about the financial crisis. She is finally back with this, based on the real life thriller book by heroic British journalist Luke Harding about the Russian spy poisoned in London. Espionage and power politics. Could be a stunner.

The Hunt – Almeida Theatre. Will probably help if you know the film with Mads Mikkelsen about a teacher who is wrongly accused of child sexual abuse in Denmark. It’s in because the Almeida and Rupert Goold the director rarely mess up.

The Doctor – Almeida Theatre. It is Robert Icke directing. It is Juliet Stevenson in the lead. It is at the Almeida. That’s all you need to know. Based on the classic play by Schnitzler about a doctor in early C20 Vienna destroyed by anti-semitism. Has a trial in it that will be meat and drink to Mr Icke. I am very excited by this.

RISKIER PUNTS TO BOOK AHEAD ON

Glass. Kill. Bluebeard – Royal Court Theatre. Three new short plays by Caryl Churchill. I’ve realised that, like Shakespeare, recommending productions by CC to non theatre obsessives doesn’t always pay off, (the Top Girls at the NT wasn’t perfect I admit), but she is still a genius.

Hansard – National Theatre. Not much to go on. A comedy about a Tory MP and his wife. But Simon Godwin is directing and best of all it has Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan in the lead. Obviously I am not the only one to realise that is a classy combination so it has sold out but they will likely conjure up more dates so look out and just buy blind.

Magic Goes Wrong – Vaudeville Theatre. If you are familiar with Mischief Theatre then this, created with magicians Penn and Teller, has to be seen. It will probably run for years but why not treat yourself for Christmas.

When the Crows Visit – Kiln Theatre. Ibsen’s Ghosts revamped and relocated to modern day India. The Kiln in Kilburn, along with the Arcola in Dalston and the Theatre Royal Stratford East, are all on a roll at the moment in terms of repertoire that isn’t too fringe-y but still diverse. This is the most intriguing offer.

The American Clock at the Old Vic review ***

The American Clock

Old Vic Theatre, 11th February 2019

All the reviews will tell you the same thing. This was not one of Arthur Miller’s finest moments. Mind you his finest moments are amongst the greatest in theatrical history so the bar is set pretty high. A series of vignettes, with musical accompaniment, inspired by the oral histories of Studs Terkel, notably Hard Times, which intend to knit together to offer a dramatic critique, if you will, of the Wall Street Crash and The Great Depression. Almost bound by its form perhaps to fall short dramatically but could still fly as theatre.

It might have flopped on Broadway when it first appeared in 1980 but apparently the NT production from the mid 1980’s, (albeit under the guidance of master director Peter Wood, the man who breathed life into Stoppard’s comedies), was a great success. So I can see why Matthew Warchus entertained the idea of American musical director Rachel Chavkin having a crack at it on the Old Vic stage. Especially after the success of Conor McPherson’s Girl From the North Country, which to me, albeit with the powerful addition of the music of one B. Dylan, it somewhat resembles.

Miller himself termed it a vaudeville, a variety entertainment popular in the US before the Depression, and similar to music hall in good old Blighty. A long way from the original French precursor, (which I have just learned about – thanks teach), from the late C18 which was the lightest of comedies interspersed with songs and ballets. Comic opera with no intention of lecturing its audience. Unlike Mr Miller who leaves you in no doubt about what he is trying to say. It probably “helped”, at least artistically, that Miller’s own family like so many other well-to-do types were ruined by the Crash.

The American Clock is centred on the Baum family, an initially well to do Manhattan Jewish family, Moe, Rose and son Lee, who lose it all in the Crash and are forced to move in with family in Brooklyn, (Rose’s sister Fanny, her son Sidney and his wife Doris, and Grandpa). A narrator of sorts appears in the guise of sagacious money man, Theodore K. Quinn, who sells out ahead of the crash, in contrast to a bunch of his peers, who we meet, along with a whole host of other characters incidental to the Baum’s journey. In total there are some 26 named characters. Thus the whole of American society is represented. And, just to emphasise the timeless relevance, and thereby add more bodies to the stage, Rachel Chavkin has chosen to cast the Baum family with three different sets of actors, White Jewish, African American and Asian American. Actually it turns out this is less of an annoying conceit that in sounds.

Now I can see why uber critic Frank Rich archly observed that, “It is Mr. Miller’s notion, potentially a great one, that the Baums’ story can help tell the story of America itself during the traumatic era that gave birth to our own. As it happens, neither tale is told well in The American Clock: indeed, the Baums and history fight each other to a standoff.” That about sums it up though it is a little harsh. Each episode in the “story”, and there are many, sheds light on a slice of American life across those fateful few years, whilst still giving primacy to the journey of the Baums. But we never get to see enough of these characters to make any emotional connection to them and the narrative arc is too fragmentary to generate any real direction.

Having said that some of the scenes, individually are powerful, the dispossessed Mid-West farmers taking control of an auction on behalf of one of their number, the call to action from an oratorically gifted Communist agitator in the office for poor relief, the dance marathons, for example. And the play looks at sound fantastic. Chloe Lamford’s in-the-round set starts out as a commodities trading floor and, then, through constant evolution (and revolution,) becomes speakeasy, club, family home, diner, auction house and much much more. Rose Elnile’s costumes are similarly evocative. The combined talents of composer Justin Ellington, sound designer Darron L West, musical director Jim Henson and his on stage band made up of Shaney Forbes, James Mainwaring and Laurence Ungless create a rich, jazz based, aural tapestry. Top of the class though is surely choreographer Ann Yee, (and not for the first time in my experience, Caroline, or Change, the War Requiem at the ENO, and the Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy are all recent examples of her work), who oversees some smashing dance routines..

There are also many committed performances notably from Clarke Peters, Clare Burt, Francesca Mills, Golda Rosheuvel, Ewan Wandrop and Abdul Salis.

So, if you are tempted, and there are plenty of reasonably priced tickets left, I wouldn’t stop you. Just don’t go expecting to get the emotional punch in the gut that classic Miller delivers. I have certainly endured worse history lessons.

Sea Wall at the Old Vic Theatre review

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sea Wall

Old Vic Theatre, 23rd June 2018

I might have told this story before. My memory is failing. A few years ago the SO, BD and LD went to see Groundhog Day at the Old Vic. Terrific film and terrific musical. Made more terrific by the presence of Ben Wishaw and Andrew Scott in the audience just in front of us. Topping that LD got a pic of herself with them at the interval thanks to the SO’s no-nonsense lack of star-struckedness. Made our days though I was too scared to talk to them. If I had it might have gone … “I hope your Hamlet Mr Scott is as good as yours Mr Wishaw” or some equally bone-headed guff.

Anyway it turns out that Mr Scott’s Hamlet at the Almeida was even better than Mr Wishaw’s. Some achievement that. Don’t listen to those who say his style was too “conversational” or that he dumb-downed the verse for the hoi-polloi, (aided and abetted by some suspiciously “European auteur” style direction from Robert Icke). Those are the sort of snobs who would keep you all from the exquisite joy that is Shakespeare and have you all bored rigid for four hours with men in doublets and tights at the Globe.

Sea Wall was written especially for Mr Scott by Simon Stephens, who, on his day, is as fine a dramatist as any alive today. It is apparently the favourite of his play. It was commissioned by Josie Rourke in 2008 when she was AD at the Bush and has subsequently popped up in Edinburgh, Dublin and at the NT under the auspices of Paines Plough and the director here, George Perrin. It is only 30 minutes long, that was the brief, and Mr Stephens had only 3 weeks to write it. This left no time for fannying about so, after catching a glimpse of an incident whilst on holiday in France which forms the denouement of the monologue, he just got on with it. Which explains its immediacy and power I suspect.

At first there is just a hint that Mr Scott is showboating here as he breaks down the barrier between actor, character and text. Given the prices some of the audience will have paid, (not this skinflint), and the hype surrounding the play and his performance, there was a faint air of “so what” for the first few minutes. Then somewhere in the story the spell is cast so that by the end Mr Scott had, forgive the cliche, the entire packed Old Vic crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. The monologue, when perfectly realised as here, can be the most perfect form of theatre. It is just story telling after all and in this simple family tragedy Simon Stephens is able to squeeze in all of his favourite themes, science, faith, mortality, twists of fate, compassion, exploration, fatherhood, Chekhov, grief, the possibility of redemption, all in one perfectly tight bundle. Delivered by a man who, for all the world, looks like he is watching the story unfold alongside us, as observer and observed. Other actors have performed the part of Alex but at the end of the day this is Scott’s voice in the text.

There is a short film version and hopefully he will get to play it again. Meanwhile this family at least awaits his next move, TV, film or stage, with bated breath.

 

 

Mood Music at the Old Vic review ***

11357509244_0e8af7a4ff_o

Mood Music

Old Vic Theatre, 30th May 2018

Joe Penhall is definitely on to something with his new play Mood Music. But having found it I am not entirely sure that he then took the time to develop it. Well worth seeing, some fine performances and some thoughtful debate, but, after a terrific set up, a little disappointing and not as satisfying as, say, Blue/Orange.

Ben Chaplin plays louche, supercilious music producer Bernard, a part that could have been written for him, though it wasn’t as Old Vic favourite Rhys Ifans had to step down. Irish actor Seana Kerslake plays gifted young singer/songwriter Cat. From the get-go it is pretty obvious that something has gone horribly wrong between the hit making svengali and the precocious artist. They are each shadowed by psychiatrists, the diffident Ramsay for Bernard, (Pip Carter who played opposite Ben Chaplin in the original cast of Nina Raine’s superb Consent at the NT), and the similarly purposeful Vanessa played by Jemma Redgrave. They are subsequently joined on-stage by their respective entertainment lawyers, animated Seymour (Neil Stuke) and acute Miles (Kurt Egyiawan).

The combination of Bernard’s production experience and Cat’s talent and appeal is expected to produce a sure-fire hit. Initially there is no dialogue directly between the two, just between them and their respective professional advisers. The dialogue is temporally fluid with the thrust stage and design from Hildegard Bechtler, overhung with loads of mics, also shifting between music studio, consultation rooms and lawyers’ offices. When we finally get flashbacks to the beginning of Cat and Bernard’s working relationship we see there were some signs of affections and musical appreciation and mutual learning. As Bernard gets to work on “improving” Cat’s songs the musical boundaries blur and the “ownership” of the creative ideas is confused.

Bernard is plainly an egotistical, sexist bully locked in the past whose musical Midas touch is fading. Cat worships her amateur musician father, is warily truculent and won’t be pushed around. Even so Bernard slowly undermines her and her work claiming it as his own. The direction of travel in terms of the relationship is predictable, though still very illuminating, and made more fascinating by not being too black and white. Bernard, at least in Ben Chaplin’s shoes is not irredeemably evil, though he comes pretty close and is blissfully unaware of the damage he does to Cat, whilst Cat herself, thanks to Ms Kerslake’s acting skill, is not completely sympathetic and certainly not a helpless victim. This is smart writing as you might expect from Mr Penhall.

The relationship between art and life and the wellspring of the creative process is a theatrical staple. Putting this in the more contemporary context of popular music, (rather than writing), makes for a less academic experience than some classic plays which plough this furrow. The economics of composition and performance are also highlighted. Modern music seems to unite the age old artistic divide between creator and performer. This shows us that this is often an illusion. The play has obviously been made more relevant as the scale of male abuse of female artists, notably in contemporary film-making, has been laid bare.

I liked the structure of the play with the interweaving dialogue, “musical’ if you will, and Roger Michell’s direction served this admirably, as he always does (he directed Consent brilliantly). So what’s the Tourist’s beef? Well having set up the arguments we didn’t really move on. Just around and in between them. At a couple of hours or so the play didn’t outstay its welcome but it might have been more effective with some dislocation or shift in perspectives. The pace was quick-fire enough but apart from the scene at the awards ceremony, the uncomfortable height of Bernard’s boorishness, the drama didn’t really branch out. Still Ben Chaplin is magnetic, Sean Kerslake is a genuine real talent (as she plays a real talent) and there are cracking lines and insight.

 

 

 

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

ingmar_bergman_malmc3b6_stadsteater_1958

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”.