Frozen at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ****

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Frozen

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 8th March 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Retreat at the Park Theatre review ***

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The Retreat

Park Theatre, 30th November 2017

So here is another offering from the Park which, whilst offering a very entertaining night out, didn’t quite deliver a whole commensurate with the sum of its parts. And very fine parts they were too. Sam Bain, with writing partner Jesse Armstrong, is the comic mind behind Peep Show, Fresh Meat and Babylon and the inexplicably “only a pilot, never commissioned” Bad Sugar, which was co-conceived with Julia Davis, Sharon Horgan and Olivia Colman. I’ll say that again for anyone whose job it is to get this stuff on the telly and who is reading this. Bad Sugar is a very funny comedy with three of our greatest comic actresses which has not been turned into a series. Why?

Mr Bain was also involved in Chris Morris’s Four Lions. So we know he can write comedy. And Kathy Burke has a string of lauded directorial credits, (next up she will be taking on Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Vaudeville Theatre), to match her acting roles. She is also clearly a fabulous person. Designer Paul Wills has come up with a convincing set that reflects the details of the setting, a one roomed hut in the Scottish Highlands. And the cast, Samuel Anderson as sanctimonious, hypocrite Luke, Adam Deacon as boisterous, brother Tony and Yasmine Akram as Tara all put in spirited performances.

Luke is some sort of financial whizz-kid, (with very rare exceptions most playwrights have a very vague idea of how the world of finance works), who is burnt out and, having been pushed out of the firm he founded, and dumped by his wife, goes to find himself, and detox, in a Buddhist retreat. This is run by Tara, who begins as a green painted, wide eyed space cadet but gradually comes back to earth, (observe her Hunter wellies), as the reality of her financial predicament is revealed. In fairly short order Tony turns up. He lives with Luke in London, is estranged from partner and child, has a dead end delivery job, likes his drugs and relies on Luke to keep him afloat. He wants Luke back. Luke wants to sell the London flat and support the retreat. Tony is understandably dead set against this course of action. Cue some gentle prodding of the dichotomy between spiritualism and materialism and a very believable, and funny, account of fraternal interdependence.

For it is, in parts, very funny. Adam Deacon in particular, is gifted with a whole string of one liners as the foil to the more serious, uptight Samuel Anderson. The problem is these gags end up taking over much of the drama. The “Tony as an arse” joke tail ends up wagging the “modern life is unfulfilling” plot dog as it were. Which is a bit of a shame because the ideas that sit behind the play are actually quite interesting and it does manage to seriously engage with Buddhist ideas, whilst satirising the narcissism that underpins the contemporary quest for “mindfulness”. Sam Bain’s day job as a sit-com writer is clearly visible in The Retreat, for both good and bad. I also felt that Yasmine Akram’s Tara was a little underwritten, which left her having to rely too much on arch expressions and eye rolling astonishment to react to the male characters and to reveal her true motives.

Still, if you just relax and stop playing the amateur theatre critic, there was much to enjoy here. I am not sure there was much that Kathy Burke could do to divert the one-liner torrent even if she had wanted to. The SO, BUD and KCK all came along and, once again, we all agreed that the evening was a success and that the Park continues to exude a special, friendly atmosphere. So relax, don’t moan, don’t expect too much, live in the moment and stop fretting about what might have been.