Anna at the National Theatre review ****

Anna

National Theatre Dorfman, 11th June 2019

After a false start, (the indolent Tourist failed to wake up in time on the appointed on-sale day and this sold out fast), a couple of returns were secured so it was off to the Dorfman with MS in tow for Ella Hickson’s latest play. With high expectations given Ms Hickson’s last two outings, The Writer and Oil, both at the Almeida. Expectations that were, largely, met.

I say Ella Hickson but without the sound wizards of Ben and Max Ringham Anna would not have been possible. For, as I am sure your seasoned theatregoers know, the USP of the play is that the audience listens to the proceedings on stage through headphones. The action being set in the modish East Berlin apartment of Ann (Phoebe Fox) and Hans (Paul Bazely) Weber in 1968, expertly designed by Vicki Mortimer. Anna enters in the dark, potters about. Hans joins her, returning from work. They are about to host a party to celebrate Hans’s promotion. Their elder neighbour, Elena Hildebrand (the ever wonderful Diana Quick), joins them before Hans’s work colleague pitch up en masse, including his intimidating boss Christian Neumann (Max Bennett).

Anna is nervous of Herr Neumann and, with a nod to Death and the Maiden, we soon find out why. Or do we? Across the brief 70 minutes or so Ms Hickson pops in a few twists whilst ramping up the tension as the party drinks flow. We are listening in from Anna’s aural standpoint, as it were, so it’s pretty clear all is not what it seems, though to be fair I didn’t see the end coming. Maybe it didn’t quite hang together dramatically but as a way of conjuring up an atmosphere of claustrophobia, surveillance and suspicion, the cornerstone of Communist East Germany, the technology certainly did the job. And just to be sure we embrace the spying vibe. we are separated from the Dorfman stage by a glasss wall.

The cast, especially those aforementioned as well as Nathalie Armin, Jamie Bradley, Michael Gould, Georgia Landers, Lara Rossi and Duane Walcott, all rose to the technical challenge even if they had limited opportunity to get under the skin of the characters. And director Natalie Abrahami, and movement guru Anna Morrissey, deserve immense credit for orchestrating the party. Phoebe Fox has to portray a range of real, and fake, emotions as Anna and sometimes, much like the play itself, which has to support a number of themes inside its thriller structure, doesn’t quite manage to keepit together. But it is still impossible not to get immersed in the story, even if it warranted twice the length, and you never stop marvelling at what the Ringham boys are punching down your lugholes. Not sure I would want to experience theatre this way every day of the week, (the whole point is that this was not a communal experience), but, like Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, you need to try this once.

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.