Caroline, or Change at the Hampstead Theatre review *****

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Caroline, or Change

Hampstead Theatre, 18th April 2018

How many exceptions does it take before the rule is unproven?

I don’t, as a rule, like musicals, as I have oft repeated on these very pages. I absolutely adored this though. That might be because it isn’t your classic show tunes, jazz hands, fake emotion overload. It might be because Jeanine Tesori’s eclectic score ranges across the history of African-American music, (with help from Jewish American music, and plenty more besides), and reminds us how lost contemporary human culture would be without it. it might be because CoC is operatic in intent and form. It might be because it is through-composed with no awkward recitative exposition. It might be because it is formally inventive, what with its singing appliances, swinging moon (!), split level and revolving stage, courtesy of Fly Davies, and repeated metaphors. It might be because Tony Kushner is a playwright, and here book and lyric writer, of fierce intelligence, politically engaged, unafraid of tackling big issues, or incorporating his own, real, experiences into his work. It might be because Sharon D. Clarke is just about the most powerful actor to be seen anywhere on the British stage. There are moments in this where her entire body quivers under the weight of Black American history. And when she sings. OMG as the young’uns would have it. And she’s not the only one knocking it out the park. Abiona Omanua as Emmie runs her a pretty close second in her own way.

This production was praised to the skies on its original outing at Chichester. I believed the hype, but ummed and ahhed about booking for the Hampstead transfer, trying to rope in some chums. No takers, the SO didn’t bite, her aversion to musicals being ideologically sounder than mine, so I ended up taking the plunge on my tod. In the end it was probably more the urge to collect productions of Mr Kushner’s work that swung it rather than these reviews. At times I was engrossed by both Angels in America at the NT and IHO here at Hampstead even if, ten minutes later, I baulked at his indulgence. His translation of Mother Courage was also used in the so-so recent production of Mother Courage at Southwark Playhouse. I can see why he likes Brecht.

Well I only need to have paid attention to the 5* reviews, and so should you now that this is transferring to the Playhouse Theatre, from late November through to early February next year. I strongly recommend you get tickets. And don’t skimp. It is rubbish upstairs in the Playhouse and you need to take in all the set. I also see that the prices for decent seats, whilst not cheap, are not eye-gougingly expensive.

Music first. Jeanine Tesori’s score is magnificent. I assume it was composed for the orchestral forces on show in this production, 11 strong, with Nigel Lilley conducting. They are certainly put through their paces with Haydnesque chamber passages, a Jewish klezmer dance, hymns and folk tunes wedded to gospel, blues, soul, jazz and spirituals. And still room for a couple of show-tunes. If this all sounds a bit rich, it isn’t. The rhythms are simple and infectious and the melodies and motifs clear and recognisable even to this untrained ear. Ms Tesori doesn’t waste a note. What is most extraordinary is how she renders Tony Kushner’s text so immediately musical, as, presumably, he doesn’t write that way. There is a good interview in the programme, as there always is, from Will Mortimer of the Hampstead Theatre, with TK and JT where they describe their creative process. They seem to like working together. There is also an article written by TK setting out the genesis of CoC and a helpful essay on domestic workers in the US from slavery through the civil rights movement to the present day The HT programmes are always excellent in this regard, with material directly relevant to the production and not too removed or abstract as can sometimes be the case.

Whilst all of the orchestra sounded terrific to me I would highlight the brass and woodwind contributions of Alice Lee and John Graham. Their instruments were always likely to get the lion’s share of the expressive lines, given Mr Kushner is unafraid of emotion, but they sure know how to deliver them. In total I counted 53 songs. Like I say there is no filler, but you can work out for yourselves that, across the couple of hours of performances this means nothing outstays its welcome, so we have dynamism to match the musical invention.

So what’s it about? It is the 1960s in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It is hot and humid.. Caroline Thibodeaux is an African American mother of four kids, Emmie, whose consciousness is being raised by the Civil Rights protests, Jackie and Joe (I am really sorry I don’t know which young actors where in the hotseat on the day of the performance I attended), and an elder son in the army. Caroline’s drunk, abusive husband is long gone. She works as maid to the Gellman family, Stuart Gellman, his second wife Rose Stopnick Gellman, and young Noah (based on Tony Kushner himself). We also get to meet Caroline’s friend Dotty Moffett, trying to “better herself” through night school, and the Gellman grandparents and Grandpa Stopnick, in various imagined scenes, and when they visit Louisiana from New York.

Oh and we are introduced to a singing washing machine, a dryer, a Supremes style trio representing the radio, a moon on a swing and a bus. As you do. These fantasy elements make perfect sense in the context of the story Kushner and Tesori are telling, and provide further contrasts to the already rich mix created by Ms Tesori’s music and by Mr Kushner’s sharp, poetic, lyrical, emotional, analytical, metaphysical and often very funny lyrics. One detail in particular, the illuminated red ring around Ako Mitchell’s neck, to simulate the dryer, but suggesting something way more horrific from America’s past, shows just how many ideas are at work here.

In 1963 self-absorbed Noah is 8, (sorry, as with the boys, I can’t be sure who played Noah), and prone to bothering Caroline, and lighting her cigarettes, as she launders in the Gellman house basement. Noah’s mum recently died of cancer and the relationship with step-mum is delicate. Stuart, still grieving, and Rose’s relationship isn’t perfect either. Caroline gets paid $30 a week. Rose offers her food rather than a raise, and later, condescendingly suggests she take the small change the family leave in their pockets, especially Noah. This idea of change, (both personal for Caroline, and politically for her family and community), and of the unequal economic relationship between the Gellmans and Caroline, of which they are all acutely conscious, is central to the drama, and presents an extraordinarily powerful metaphor.

The assassination of JFK, and his legacy, and the destruction of a statue of a Confederate soldier at the local Lake Charles courthouse, provide wider social and political context and, in the case of the latter, acute contemporary resonance, given, for example, the ugly events last year in Charlottesville. The politics ramps up before, during and after the Chanukah party in the first half of Act 2, which, for me, served up half an hour of the most vital theatre I have seen ever seen anywhere. The aftermath of the party, and an elusive $20 bill, prompts a bust up between Caroline and Noah and then some sort of spiritual epiphany for Caroline, culminating in the passionate song Lot’s Wife, which made me, and half the audience, quietly blu. Emmie though has the last, defiant, word.

Caroline is angry, sullen and resentful at the hand that life has dealt her, but her faith, her dignity, her conditioning and the stark fact that she needs to feed her family, means she cannot fight back. Emmie, from the next generation, can though. Mr Kushner points out in the programme how damaging the failure to resolve issues of race and poverty has been to the American politic, but he also offers a message than change is still possible.

The Hampstead stage is just about big enough to contain the set, though I gather it was more expansive at Chichester, but small enough to let us savour every line and note. I don’t think I missed a word and Michael Longhurst’s direction was exemplary (if you’ve see Amadeus at the National you’ll know what he’s about), ably assisted by Ann Yee’s intricate choreography.

In my own little fantasy world of reviews on this blog site I dole out stars like candy, largely because I get so excited with how much marvellous culture London offers that I really do feel like I am in the proverbial sweet shop. This though is a brook no argument 5* masterpiece.

The best thing I have seen this year. And I was perched up in the gods wishing I was much closer and had booked sooner.

You must see it.

 

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.

 

Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre review ****

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Glengarry Glen Ross

Playhouse Theatre, 25th January 2018

I am wary of West End productions that import a big American movie star to embellish a revival. And, like most ill thought out prejudice, this invariably turns out to be wrong. Still the only person harmed by this ignorance is me.

In this case though I was far more optimistic. This is, arguably, David Mamet’s finest play. A Pulitzer prize-winner no less. It was to be directed by the talented Sam Yates. The supporting cast, Robert Glenister, Kris Marshall, Daniel Ryan, Oliver Ryan, Stanley Townsend and Don Warrington was top drawer. And the Hollywood star in question was Christian Slater. Now I admit he may not be peak A list, he has been in such unutterable dross, I have never seen the West Wing, The Forgotten and Mr Robot, (I don’t have the patience for these TV series), and I can see he is a bit of a tit in real life. But when I have seen him he has munched his way through the scenery in that mini-Jack Nicholson way of his and I figured he was born to play Ricky Roma.

And so it proved. A dazzling performance. Cocksure, brash, manipulative, aggressive, dismissive but vain, hollow, deceiving himself as much as others. Ricky is about as good a character as modern drama has created but Mr Slater still delivers. The scene with Daniel Ryan’s cowed James Lingk, ably abetted by Stanley Townsend’s Shelley, was delicious, as good as I have seen on the West End stage. You could feel Ricky’s brain going through the gears so as not to lose the sale. Prodding, patting, probing, putting his arm around Lingk, not letting him get away. Superb.

Watching Stanley Townsend shift from desperation to euphoria, and then back again, as he pleaded for leads, pulled in a big sale and then realised he had been taken for a ride, was also exquisite. Kris Marshall’s portrayal of John Williamson, the office manager who eventually relishes the power he wields over the salesmen, was a revelation. Don Warrington played George Aaronow as a broken, lost figure, so easily manipulated and Robert Glenister was wonderful as Dave Moss, a man whose cunning is only matched by his belligerence.

This is as good an ensemble as you are going to see on any West End stage. Mind you I bet that is the reaction of anyone who sees it anywhere whenever it is revived. I first fell in love with GGR in, I think, 1985, the revival of Bill Bryden’s world premiere National Theatre production, staged at the Mermaid Theatre, (which is a lovely space and it is bloody criminal what has happened to it). The 2007 revival, with Jonathan Pryce and Aiden Gillen, directed by James MacDonald, near matched this. Not quite so sure about the film, what with the extra character and the softening of Jack Lemmon’s Shelley, but it should still be on your film bucket list for sure.

The salesman in the US is an iconic figure, even in a world of Amazon, internet disintermediation, telesales and the like. The skill of building a relationship with a customer or client, of identifying and fulfilling a need or want, (or manifestly not as is the case here), will always be with us. It is a potent subject for drama: the Tourist and LD remain addicted to the Apprentice, and America chose to elect an ersatz salesman as its leader. The attraction for playwrights lies in the insight the salesman offers into the human condition, particularly its uglier side, and the resonant metaphor it offers for society and economy. Hard to believe but the same subject gave us an even better play than this. In fact the greatest ever American play in the form of Death of a Salesman.

Of course the real beauty of the play is Mamet’s dialogue. And it is beautiful make no mistake. The boy Aristotle, who knew a thing or two, said drama needed heightened language, which you certainly get here, but also rhythm. a kind of music, to the interaction of the plot, characters, lines and the overall spectacle, and this is what Mamet delivers in spades. And he doesn’t hang around. Act 1, in the Chinese restaurant, is a little over half an hour here, (always fun watching the GGR virgins looking a bit nonplussed at the speed with which the interval arrives). Yet, in its three perfect scenes, we learn everything we need to know about Levene, Williamson, Moss, Aaronow, Roma and victim Lingk. In my book Roma’s soliloquy, masked as sales patter, is up there with the best ever written for the stage. And we see that pathetic combination of male aggression, false certainty and “firing from the hip” which infects modern political economy. Too often the plausible bully wins and rises to the top. And if he can’t win he throws a tantrum or cheats. It is always a he.

Chiara Stephenson’s set (and costume) design strove, as it should I think, for absolute realism, which meant a fair bit of carpentry in the interval to turn the atmospheric restaurant into the claustrophobic office where the overnight robbery barely upsets the chaos. And so on to the perfectly plotted second act. I guess the first performance I say was the best precisely because I didn’t know what was going to happen, but knowing the plot, as with all the best plays, leaves more headspace to relish the language and marvel at how Mamet captures this cocktail of virility and vulnerability without ever losing our connection with the characters. For ultimately our problem, surely, is we sort of admire Roma and we sort of pity Levene

Sam Yates as director lets the text sing and, unsurprisingly, leaves the cast to do their thing. So why not a perfect 5 stars. Well this reflects my now oft repeated aversion to West End theatres. To fund my theatrical habit means I can’t go splashing sixty quid plus, or even three figures, for the best seats in the house, willy-nilly,  so I went tight here and opted for the balcony (upper circle as they term it), having stupidly ignored the advice of simian experts. View and sound commensurate with price but the seats themselves up here in the Playhouse are ridiculous. I couldn’t fit in. Not I was a bit uncomfortable. I mean I couldn’t fit in. Moving to a smaller neighbour option and shuffling around helped in Act 2 but it was still about the worst I have ever experienced. Let’s hope they never put a Hamlet on here. I know there ain’t much they can do, and that ATG has to earn its corn, but a clear indication of just how tight legroom is would be appreciated, Anyway I found out the hard way.