Three Sisters at the Almeida Theatre review ****

Three Sisters

Almeida Theatre, 25th April 2019

It creeps up on you this Three Sisters. As with her feted take on Tennessee Williams’s neglected Summer and Smoke last year, Almeida Associate Director Rebecca Frecknall is unafraid of letting the play take its time to unfold and delivers a similar, dreamy quality to events in this Chekhov staple. And, with Cordelia Lynn’s loose-limbed, idiomatic, yet poetic, adaptation, (draw from Helen Rappaport’s literal translation), and Hildegard Bechtler’s barely-there set and timeless costumes, (if there had been some old rope lying around I would have guessed she were the taking the p*ss), she has some very willing accomplices. This is a Three Sisters pretty much stripped of context or artifice, no birch trees or big frocks here, where we are forced to focus entirely on the relationships between the characters. Time, space and place, and even action at some points, are erased to just leave people, their language and their interaction (or lack thereof – there aren’t many great listeners is Chekhov).

Fair enough. This is, after all a play about (father and mother-less) three sisters and their dodgy brother (I’ve always wondered if Anton C had a Bronte thing going on), bored sh*tless and pointlessly dreaming of returning to the buzz of metropolitan Moscow. And marriage. And its frustrations. And parenthood. And its frustrations. And old age. And its frustrations. And work. And its frustrations. And money. And its frustrations. And unrequited love and its frustrations. And idealism. And its frustrations. And denial. And its frustrations. And sacrifice. And emotional manipulation. And politics. And class. And knowledge. And drink. In fact the whole meaning of life gig. There’s a party. A bunch of soldiers come. There’s a duel. Then they go. A clock gets smashed. A piano doesn’t get played. And, in the background, there is the march of history with the first Russian Revolution just 5 years away from when AC completed TS.

Patsy Ferran is back with Ms Frecknall after her award winning performance in S&S but as Olga the oldest, unmarried, sister and the self sacrificing glue that holds the family, just about together. She is mesmeric but actually has less to say and do than Pearl Chanda as Masha or Ria Zmitrowicz as the youngest Irina. Here Irina veers towards needy, self-obsessed, Gen Z-er, reinforcing the abstracted nature of the interpretation. In any one else’s hands this might not have worked but Ria Zmitrowicz is good enough to get away with it, For me though Pearl Chanda as the sardonic Masha is the pick of the three. Masha is the engine room of the play, the catalyst for its sharp humour and for the changes in the direction of the meandering plot. Her infatuation with Peter McDonald’s solemn philosophising widower Lieutenant Vershinin, needs to mix a genuine passion with a sort of bored, going through the motions. And she needs to bait her cuckolded Latin teacher husband Kulygin who knows exactly what is going on. Elliot Levy’s portrayal of Kulygin certainly captured his foolishness and compulsion to deflect tension with humour but not so much his underlying sadness and yearning for Olga.

The other central female character is Natasha, (another precise performance by a favourite of mine Lois Chimimba), who goes from gauche, brittle servant to imperious lady of the house after marrying the weak, vacillating Andrey (Freddie Meredith) who spunks the, limited, family fortune away gambling. Natasha, with her doting on her new born son Bobik, her antipathy to devoted family retainer Anfisa (Annie Firbank) and her pursuit of the unseen Protopopov, the head of the local council which Andrey joins to give him purpose, is here the most conventionally Chekhovian, at least from my memory of previous productions I have seen.

Mind you my memory is far from perfect as, for a few minutes in the second act I think I may have drifted off into The Cherry Orchard as I confused the confused Ferapont (Eric MacLennan) with Firs and the drunk army doctor Chetbutykin (Alan Williams) with Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev. Fortunately the ever attentive BB’s, who, along with my other guests, BUD, KCK and, of course, the SO, put me right and, as usual, saw in the production all that I missed. This is one of the joys of Chekhov. We all agreed on the overall tone of the play, in a word melancholic, and the direction of the plot, but because there is so much of themselves explicitly voiced by these complex characters we all focussed on different facets and dimensions off their existence, to then share our findings, albeit briefly, at the end.

Normally having set out situation and the arrivals, (there are always arrivals and a departure, after moreorless dramatic disclosures, in Chekhov), here the soldiers, including the unfortunate Baron Tuzenbach (Shubham Saraf) who pines for Irina, a troubled poet Solyony (Alexander Eliot), photographer Fedotik (Akshay Sharan) and Rode (Sonny Poon Tip), AC plays start to move through the gears drawing you in with major key attempted resolutions, before drifting off into a minor key conclusion. Not here though. Once the pace is set, at Irina’s name day party, it doesn’t really alter. It is as if the ominous, “keep calm and carry on even if it is all going to sh*t” ending feeds backwards into the rest of the play. But the absence of any distraction here, (dusky lighting and ambient sound by Jack Knowles and George Dennis are as non-specific as set and costumes), the intimacy of the space, the dedication of cast and director to the intention and, especially, Cordelia Lynn’s adaptation reeled us all in and held us there. It feels its length, just shy of three hours, and there are times when words, and only words, test the patience but ultimately it is a rewarding, if nebulous, experience.

For it is perfectly possible to never get out of a wistful second gear in Three Sisters. Nick Hytner did this in his 2003 NT production, despite a cracking cast. I plumped for this in contrast to Michael Blakemore’s West End production a few months later. Which appears to have been a mistake even though MB used a Christopher Hampton rather than a Michael Frayn adaptation. Alternatively, as Benedict Andrews proved at the Young Vic in 2012, it is possible to pimp it up, rev up to fifth gear and set out on the highway. That wasn’t perfect but it was bloody exciting in parts. I think I have seen a couple of other takes before record-keeping began, (yes I am a boy and I like making lists), but don’r remember them too well but there’s always the ennui.

I see the reviews are a bit all over the place. I can see why. In this case I think the only way to be sure is to see for yourself. And, if you like it, then mark down Rebecca Frecknall’s next outing. I suspect she will have her way with Ibsen one day soon. That could be very interesting. Meanwhile we have another Three Sisters in the pipeline. This time at the NT with Inua Ellams shifting the action to 1960s Nigeria and with Nadia Fall in the director’s chair. Neither, in my experience, reach for the soporific so this should be fun.

The best theatre coming up in London

It’s been a little while since the Tourist set out his favourite theatre opportunities either on now (in the case of Nine Night), or coming up over the year in London. Nothing too obscure or fringe-y here. Tried and trusted in terms of writer, director, cast and/or venue.

The first ten plays are written by, are about, or have creative teams led by women. We’re getting there.

Top Girls – National Theatre Lyttleton. The English speaking world’s greatest living playwright Caryl Churchill and one of her best ever plays. Still relevant, with its profound feminist critique, near 40 years after it was written. Audacious beginning with the dinner party scene and then the force of nature Marlene takes over.

Small Island- National Theatre Olivier. An adaptation by Helen Edmundson of Andrea Levy’s brilliant novel about race (the Windrush generation) and class in post war Britain. A cast of 40 count ’em directed by Rufus Norris (this should play to his strengths after a couple of duffers).

ANNA – National Theatre Dorfman. The bugger is already sold out but more seats promised. 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.

Medea – Barbican Theatre. Euripides’s greatest tale of female revenge with Europe’s finest actress, Marieke Heebink, in a production by Europe’s greatest theatre company International Theater Amsterdam (was Toneelgroep) directed by Simon Stone. Don’t let the Dutch (with English sur-titles) put you off.

Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre. Chekhov. New adaptation. Cast not fully announced but Patsy Ferran and Pearl Chanda is a great start and directed by Rebecca Frecknall who garnered deserved praise for her Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams. Usual Chekhov tragic-comic ennui. A few tickets left.

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 and one of the best in in the last 5 years. Nothing tricksy here just really powerful theatre.

Blood Wedding – Young Vic. Lorca’s not quite the happiest day of their lives directed by Yael Farber (this should suit her style). The last time the Young Vic did Lorca it was an overwhelming Yerma.

A German Life – Bridge Theatre. Dame Maggie Smith. That’s all you need to know. (Playing Brunhild Pomsel who was Goebbels’ secretary in a new play by Christopher Hampton who did Les Liasions Dangereuses and translates French plays).

The Phlebotomist – Hampstead Theatre. Blood of a different kind.. I saw this last year in Hampstead Downstairs. Now a run in the bigger space for Ella Road’s debut near term dystopic relationship play with Jade Anouka tremendous in the lead.

Nine Night – Trafalgar Studios. Only a few days left and only a few expensive tickets left but Natasha Gordon’s debut play about Jamaican and British identity is a cracker.

Death of a Salesman – Young Vic. Arthur Miller’s greatest play and therefore one of the greatest ever with an amazing cast directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell. This is near sold out but book now otherwise you will be paying twice the price in the West End for half the view as this is bound to be one of the best productions of the year and is bound to transfer. Willy Loman is maybe the greatest male part ever written for the stage.

The Lehman Trilogy – Piccadilly Theatre. I told you to see it at the NT and you ignored me. Do not make the same mistake twice.

Cyprus Avenue – Royal Court Theatre. Probably pointless putting this in as it is pretty much sold out but I missed David Ireland’s sharp satire of Irish republicanism and am not about to repeat that error.

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

Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre. Hayley Attwell and Tom Burke in the “greatest ever Ibsen play” which rarely gets an outing. Expect usual Ibsen misery tropes. Directed by Ian Rickson and adapted by Duncan MacMillan, marks of quality.

The Night of the Iguana – Noel Coward Theatre. Talking of less often performed classics by the greats here is a Tennessee Williams with Clive Owen putting in a rare appearance along with Lia Williams, directed by James MacDonald.

Summer and Smoke at the Almeida Theatre review ****

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Summer and Smoke

Almeida Theatre, 14th March 2018

I don’t always find it easy to get into the “Tennessee Williams zone”. My head takes a little bit of time to adjust to all that dreamy lyricism and I find it easier to stomach if there is something to cling on to, a social structure lurking in the background, the interaction of a few characters such that the usual TW human foibles are spread around a bit, a production that is not overly “directorial”.

The Almeida production of Summer and Smoke didn’t offer too much of what I look for, so I can’t say I was quite as bowled over as some of the proper critics who reckon this production was enough to set S&S, written in 1948, alongside the classic TW’s such as A Streetcar Named Desire which premiered the year before. It is very, very good though and should be seen, if you are sharp enough to snaffle some of the Rush tickets that Almeida offers up for sold-out stuff like this, or if it finds its way into the West End as it might. It is also yet another reminder, if this were needed, for all you casual theatre-goers out there. that it is always worth taking a punt on Almeida productions for fear you end up shelving out twice as much when they transfer, as so many have done under Rupert Goold’s tenure. Romola Garai has already been announced in the lead role of Ella Hickson’s new play The Writer, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they will line up another outstanding female actor to take on the challenge in Sophie Treadwell’s Expressionist classic Machinal. Invest in both I say.

In S&S Patsy Ferran has, deservedly, attracted all the plaudits for her performance as the uneasy and multiloquent Alma Winemuller, alongside the equally impressive Matthew Needham as tall, dark, handsome, and troubled, boy-next-door John Buchanan. I wasn’t entirely persuaded by My Mum’s A Twat, Ms Ferran’s last outing, but there is no denying her comic credentials. This though is her first major opportunity to showcase her “serious” acting credentials and she grabs it wth both hands. Mesmerising. Yet, if you ask me, the real star to emerge here is director Rebecca Frecknall.

Ms Frecknall has directed this very play before at the Southwark Playhouse which went down well I gather, and has already rung up a string of awards recognising her precocious talent. She clearly has a deep understanding of the text and the battle between body and soul, which lies at the heart of the play. The way she has marshalled the contributions of designer Tom Scutt, the sparse set and simple costumes backed by a ring of 9 upright pianos, the lighting of Lee Curran, the sound of Carolyn Downing and, especially, composer Angus MacRae, is what turns this into a great production, despite my minor misgivings about the play itself.

Across two acts and thirteen scenes the play explores the ultimately unrequited relationship between the nervous, conventional pastor’s daughter Alma and the maverick John Jr, who comes home to become, like his father, the town’s doctor. It is set in the first decade or so of the C20 in the backwoods of Mississippi. A study of doomed desire, we see Alma shift from sexual repression to, eventually, abandonment, as John simultaneously grows out of his wild, drunken, early years into something approaching conformity, though his hasty marriage to Rosa, daughter of a Mexican immigrant who runs a casino, isn’t going to end well. There are a few other plot twists and turns, one decidedly dramatic if predictable, but the vast majority of the “action” centres on the will they, won’t they couple.

Of course out of this TW fashions something with limitless emotional depth and the apparent linear arc of the story dissolves into something more timeless and circular. Rebecca Frecknall seizes on this and, rightly. doesn’t let go. She has a keen eye for the best of contemporary theatre direction but offers her own, clear voice. Ms Ferran and Almeida regular Mr Needham are sympathetic to this interpretation, and importantly, to each other, and are aided by some heavyweight supporting performances from the likes of Forbes Masson (who plays both fathers – clever eh) and Nancy Crane and another remarkable turn from Anjana Vasan (who was so very good in the Young Vic’s Life of Galileo – Life of Galileo at the Young Vic review ****), as all the other young women in the story (clever again eh).

There were, I admit, a few moments where the intoxicating combination of TW’s poetry, the warm lighting and the minimalist piano score, felt a little too adagio, but, like I said in the open, this is probably more a reflection of my limited attention span that the artfulness of play and production. If you have ever fallen in love with the wrong, or indeed, the right person, and ultimately bollocksed it up, then you are going to recognise Alma and John, even if their world should seem a long way from ours. And, of course, whatever melodramatic nonsense was playing through the theatre of your mind during your great affair/s, it was going to look anaemic in comparison to the intensity of TW’s vision.

If this is what Patsy Ferran can root out of a character like Alma then heavens knows what we have to look forward to in years to come. Nora, Hedda, Martha, Queen Margaret, Lady Macbeth or a host of, I am sure, stunning parts to be written by the crop of outstanding female playwrights this country is fortunate to have right now. I really cannot wait to see what Rebecca Frecknall turns her hand and eye to next. Presumably she will have another crack at the Almeida. On this showing that nice Mr Icke has some competition.

My Mum’s a Twat at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

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My Mum’s A Twat

Royal Court Theatre, 16th January 2018

I am a fat bloke with a dodgy heart and a sore back in his 50s. So I should not be swanning around London without a care in the world hoovering up culture to make up for lost time. I should be grinding away engaged in pointless labour for 12 hours a day to ensure late Western capitalism can continue to eke out basis points of economic growth. “Growth” that is only secured by measuring the wrong things or by mortgaging the future. But, in some unseemly regress to my student and early post student years, that, (the swanning), is what I am doing.

Which in turn means I end up seeing theatre where I am plainly not the target audience, surrounded by youngers who could be my kids, on seating which has not been designed with me in mind. There is an excellent tendency amongst the most progressive theatres, the Gate, the Young Vic, the Royal Court, in London to incorporate the audience seating into the set design. I probably had a lucky escape from The Jungle at the Young Vic recently, (no allusion intended), as I was unable to make the booked date. From the sound of it that was a cultural loss, given the sparkling reviews, but a medical gain as the chances of me sitting for an hour or so on a cushion without the entire audience sensing my discomfort was miniscule.

And so to My Mum’s a Twat where a quick scan on the way in saw me quickly bypass the floor cushions and opt for the sturdiest wooden chair I could find, which just about did the trick. Now to be absolutely clear I am not moaning about any of these design concepts. Quite the reverse. Bringing the audience in, rather than shutting it out, can only be a good thing. And, at the end of the day, if I could just lay off the pies, the discomfort could be dialled down. No, this is simply an awkward, space-filling preamble to the bland realisation that My Mum’s a Twat may not have been for me.

Which is galling in so many ways. The Girl in this 75 minute monologue was played by my favourite stage pixie, Patsy Ferran. By my calculations you could secure maybe 4 Patsys for every 1 of me. And since Patsy Ferran delivers more joy in 30 seconds of stage performance that I could muster across several lifetimes, (even learning from my mistakes), then this would be a very valuable trade. She was the stand-out actor in Polly Findlay’s As You Like at the National in 2015 and in Ms Findlay’s most recent RSC Merchant of Venice. And her turn in Blithe Spirit in the West End a few years ago near upstaged some way more venerable colleagues. I note she is set to take the lead in the Almeida’s forthcoming TW’s Summer and Smoke – can’t wait.

Anyway she was made for this part. This debut play by Anoushka Warden, (whose day job is schmoozing the press for the RC – good on her), is a forthright memoir of the Girl’s childhood after her Mum and partner join a ropey (“batshit crazy”) cult. She tells tales of her siblings, her stepdad (“Moron”), Mum obviously, (the twat), the pious cult leader (sorry can’t remember her name), her Dad, who she eventually rejoins after Mum and stepdad move to Canada to set up a new outpost of the cult, her friends, drugs, sex, music. In fact all the things you would expect from a memory play about childhood and teenage years. It is not too gentle though it is pretty funny, and it captures many of the pleasures, the disappointments, the self-absorption, the bedroom rebellion, of those years. At its heart lays the bond between the Girl and her Mum, despite the nonsense that her Mum subscribes to in the cult.

I wished it had gone a little bit darker, especially into the workings of the cult. The story would allow that, the anger is rooted, but Ms Warden’s writing defaults back to comedy. And it might have benefitted from a little more surprise and revelation along the way, especially towards the end, where it becomes a little bit “teenage rebel” predictable. It does though have moments of real insight and acuity which expand beyond the specific’s of the Girl’s story and it serves as a perfect vehicle to showcase Ms Ferran’s undoubted talents. Some actors recede from the memory post performance, some actors intensify. Patsy Ferran is one of the latter.

Seating aside, Chloe Lamford’s teenage bedroom design is a winner, and Ms Warden has secured the services of, not one, but two, of our finest directors in boss Vicky Featherstone and Jude Christian. Ms Christian directed Parliament Square at the Bush and in Bath (Parliament Square at the Bush Theatre review *****), to thrilling effect, and Bodies (Bodies at the Royal Court Theatre review ****) in this very space. Next up she will be bringing Trust to the Gate Theatre. A post-theatre, dance based German-Dutch collaboration having a pop at global capitalism, in the tiny Gate space. It will either be genius or ludicrous. Probably a bit of both.