A Taste of Honey at Richmond Theatre review ***

A Taste Of Honey

Richmond Theatre, 9th October 2019

Not quite sure I know how a production such as this is taken under the wing of the National Theatre, and let’s face it it’s none of my business anyway. But I do think I can work out why this particular tour, which has taken in in some fair sized commercial theatres came to pass. This production of A Taste of Honey, with Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn in the leads, was a qualified success in 2014 on the South Bank. But the NT needs to be more, er, National. So spread the cost and risk so that the NT provides the brand and product and the theatres stump up the cash. Take a renowned play, though probably better known as a film, with historical appeal and contemporary relevance, and wait for the curious punters to roll in. Let Bijan Sheibani, who has since had a monster hit with Barber Shop Chronicles, (which, in another of the coincidences that continue to punctuate the Tourist’s cultural adventures, I saw for the first time literally the next day), show his best. And cast big TV and musicals star Jodie Prenger as the brassy Helen, alongside relative newcomer, Gemma Dobson as punchy daughter Josephine.

Shelagh Delaney famously wrote A Taste of Honey, the archetypal kitchen sink drama, when she was just 19. It would be pretty unusual for a working class woman to announce herself as a writer for theatre in this way in 2019. To do so in 1958 was, literally, a miracle. For which Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop, who first staged it at the Theatre Royal Stratford, were rightly grateful. Whilst she never quite went on to repeat the success of this mix of rich characterisation, sincere dialogue and dramatic allusion in her subsequent work, (the harsh reviews for her second play The Lion in Love stopped her from writing for the stage for the next 20 years), her place in theatrical history. Her ambition was fuelled after seeing a production of Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme and thinking she could do better. She was right. But in a world dominated by grammar school boys, she was never entirely at home, despite her fierce intelligence.

ATOH is still remarkable for its absence of judgement, its focus on two irreverent women, its atmosphere and its poetry. Helen and Josephine rub along, and rub up against each other, in their dingy Salford flat. Helen escapes with booze and dickhead blokes, namely one-eyed spiv Peter (Tom Varey). Teenager Josephine escapes through a fling with Nigerian sailor Jimmie (Durone Stokes). Pregnant she then turns to her gay, arty student best friend Geoffrey (another talented newcomer Stuart Thompson) for tea, sympathy and bitching.

If you don’t the story it is pretty easy to guess, its novelty, and scandal, having worn off with repeated replication. No matter it is still brilliantly executed. Or at least it would be in this production if it wasn’t for the endless and unnecessary scene changes, the very busy set from Hildegard Bechtler ,which just didn’t fit properly into the Richmond stage, the fussy lighting of Paul Anderson, and the jazz interludes from the three piece band of David O’Brien, Alex Davis and George Bird, awkwardly wedged on stage, with music from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell and on stage singing. In moderation all of these elements would work but it was all just a bit too much distraction for a text that doesn’t need and, towards the end, does, whisper it, run out of steam a bit.

Whilst I am at it Jodie Prenger and Tom Varey also verge a little too much on the side of over expression which leaves the determined yet vulnerable Gemma Dobson as the best of the five strong cast.

I am very glad that I got to see this important slice of theatrical history and I think it will do well when it comes to London at the end of the tour at the Trafalgar Studios. But if we want a better idea of why it is, even through the prism of sixty years of social change, (for the better of course), such vital drama, then Tony Richardson’s film is a better bet. I see Rita Tushingham (there she is above), whose debut role as Josephine was lauded nearly as much as Shelagh Delaney’s screenplay, is starring in Edgar Wright’s upcoming horror film alongside other legends Diana Rigg, (any way else out there fantasising about Lady Oleanna turning up at their Christmas lunch), and Terence Stamp. I wonder why. Looking forward to that.

Edmond de Bergerac at Richmond Theatre review ****

Edmond de Bergerac

Richmond Theatre, 1st May 2019

Alexis Michalik is a loving looking chap. Oozes Gallic charm. The wunderkind of French theatre. So its good to know he is half-British. He kicked off as an actor but it is his plays, which have run to packed houses in Paris and beyond, and garnered multiple awards (5 Molieres for Edmond), which he directs himself, that have turned him into a star. First Le Porteur d’Histoire, then Le Cercle des Illusionnistes, most recently Intra Muros, which was adapted in English at the Park Theatre recently (though didn’t get great reviews). His most famous play though is Edmond which appeared in 2016, a theatrical paean to the creator of Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand, and already made into a film.

Cyrano is the most performed play in the French language. A massive hit when it hit Paris in 1897, a broad fictionalisation of a real life nobleman, novelist, playwright, epistolarian and duelist in C17 France (1619-1655), written entirely in classical alexandrine verse (12 syllables per line) and about the most uplifting love story you are ever likely to see. Apparently the curtain call on the first night went on for over an hour and the French Foreign Minister emerged from the audience to go backstage and pin the Legion D’Honneur on Rostand there and then.

Cyrano regularly gets an airing in British theatres, luvvies love it, usually in Anthony Burgess’s wonderful translation, and you may well know know it from the film adaptations, either the faithful French classic version from 1990 starring Gerard Depardieu and directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau (there were others before this) or the rather freer 1987 interpretation Roxanne starring Steve Martin and directed by the underrated Aussie director Fred Schepisi.

If it you have never seen a version you are probably aware of Cyrano’s defining feature, to wit, his huge nose. This is what prevents him wooing his beautiful cousin Roxane who he adores. When he befriends the handsome but inarticulate Christian, who also falls for Roxane’s charms, he sees a way to woo her vicariously with his exquisite love poetry. It works, Roxane and Christian are secretly engaged, but there love in turn attracts the wrath of yet another suitor, the Comte de Guiche who sends the lads off to the brutal war with the Spanish. Cyrano, on Christian’s behalf, but unbeknownst to him, writes to Roxane every day though and eventually Roxane comes to the front. She loves the poet and Christian realising the pretence asks Cyrano to confront Roxane and explain. He doesn’t drop his mate in it though, Christian is killed in battle, Cyrano sees off the Spanish.

Over the next 14 years, Cyrano, now a satirist, visits Roxane every day in the convent she has holed up in mourning Christian. Finally, after sustaining a head wound, he arrives late and faints. Roxane asks him to read one of “Christian’s letters” but in the dark he recites in from memory. He dies. Roxane realises her true love. Cue tears. At least for the Tourist (and not in the Steve Martin version). You would have to be made of stone not to get caught up in this.

Now that is actually the film plot, there’s a bit more to the play, but that’s the gist of it. Except, of course, the plot is turned into something transcendent by the verse. Can’t speak French but Anthony Burgess, albeit with what apparently is know as a “sprung” rhythm, is faithful to Rostand’s intention.

It is on the French language curriculum and is regularly revived in France so Alexis Michalik was taking a bit of a risk with his text. a bit like Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman with their script for Shakespeare in Love the 1998 Oscar winning film starring Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench, directed by John Madden. Like SIL, Edmond, (de Bergerac here to avoid confusion with a David Mamet film), mixes the “real life” business of putting on a play with the plot of the play itself, in this case just the one play though.

Edmond Rostand (here Freddie Fox) is a failing twenty something poet, playwright and dreamer drawing his sorrows in drink with beau monde, womanising mate Leo (Robin Morrissey). Steadfast wife Rosemonde (Sarah Ridgeway) is on his case to provide for her and his two kids. In desperation he pitches an idea to the famous actor Constant Coquelin (Henry Goodman); an heroic comedy, based on the life of Cyrano de Bergerac, for the Christmas slot. Only problem. He hasn’t written anything. Still, the legendary Sarah Bernhardt (Josie Lawrence) believes in Edmond, and the services of diva Maria Legault (Chizzy Akudolu) to star in the play are secured. A couple of wide-boy Corsican producer/gangsters, the Floury brothers, step in with the cash (Nick Cavaliere and Simon Gregor) and, always at the last minute, Edmond delivers his three, then four, then five, act masterpiece.

We meet the prim Georges Feydeau (David Langham), Rostand’s rival and the master of farce, the philosophising Monsieur Honore (Delroy Atkinson) owner of the bar, where, along with the Palais Royal theatre, and the Rostand house, the bulk of the scenes are set, Jean (Harry Kershaw), M. Coquelin’s beloved son, would be pastry chef and terrible actor, and Jeanne (Gina Bramhill), the wardrobe mistress and saviour of the premiere who captures Leo’s heart, aided, of course, by Edmond’s words. Which are, you guessed it, what gets Rostand’s creative juices flowing when to comes to writing the play.

Many of the cast take on multiple other roles, we even meet Maurice Ravel and Anton Chekhov at one point, in the quick-fire and frenetic scenes. Movement director Liam Steel, in this production from the Birmingham Rep does an outstanding job, alongside director Roxana Gilbert in marshalling all this activity. Edmond de Rostand is not pure farce or musical but at times it looks like it. The plot is cleverly constructed, if a bit baggy, drifting in and out of the plot of Cyrano itself, the cast give their all and the set that Robert Innes Hopkins has created is brilliantly versatile allowing the sevens to shift rapidly with no loss of momentum.

I think it may have left some of the Richmond Theatre midweek matinee audience a bit nonplussed but that wouldn’t be the first time. For me, and I hope the audiences at the Birmingham Rep, York Grand Opera House, Royal and Derngate Northampton and Cambridge Arts Theatre where it toured prior to this, it was a delight. It deserves a bigger audience, why not the West End. Fair enough it would help to know a little big about its foundations, less of a problem in France where, as I have said, Cyrano de Bergerac is part of the cultural fabric, and there are occasions where M. Michalik is perhaps overly in love with his creation but for me it was one of the, positive, theatrical surprises of the year so far.

I haven’t seen nearly enough of Roxana Silbert’s work for the Birmingham Rep or, prior to that, Paines Plough. I was taken with Chris Hannan’s What Shadows which came to the Park Theatre, though that had a lot to do with Ian McDiarmid’s complex portrayal of Enoch Powell, and I can thoroughly recommend the Birmingham Rep’s latest co-production with the Rose Kingston, an adaptation of Captain Correlli’s Mandarin. I guess, when Ms Silbert joins the Hampstead Tate as AD I will be able to make a more informed judgement.

I wouldn’t want to single out any one member of the cast of Edmond but, if forced, I would highlight Freddie Fox whose performance is up there with his Tristan Tzara in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. His default mood is despondency but, as the frazzled nerves give way to a determination to succeed, and the tender affection for Jeanne builds, (don’t worry he doesn’t cheat on Rosemonde in a clever inversion of Cyrano), so we get to see a rounded hero emerge. I am also partial to Delroy Atkinson who was so good in Roy Williams’ The Firm, (still on at Hampstead), though he, like the rest of the players, stays in one dimension. If you know Henry Goodman and Josie Lawrence from other performances you certainly won’t be disappointed.

Now apparently the original Cyrano play was responsible for the word panache finding its way into the English language. M. Michalik aims, and succeeds, in capturing that spirit. I suspect even the master of comic opera translation into English, Jeremy Sams, may have been stretched to the limit in bringing clarity to the chaos here, but, if you just roll with the comic punches, and are in love with theatre, then you really should try to see this should it pop up elsewhere. The show is funny, clever and, in the end, like its inspiration, heart-warming.

The Habit of Art at Richmond Theatre review *****

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The Habit of Art

Richmond Theatre, 19th October 2018

There are a handful of plays that I regret not seeing when they first appeared. Not those I wish I had seen, That would be a very long list and cover those periods where I was not putting the required viewing effort in, being too consumed by work and/or drink. No I mean those where I toyed with the idea of going but didn’t get round to it one way or another. The Habit of Art is definitely one of those. I can see why some might get irritated by the voice of Alan Bennett. Not his actual voice of course. Surely everyone loves that unmistakable broad Yorkshire drone. No I mean his theatrical voice with its now ever-present risk of self-parody.

The Habit of Art, from 2009, along with The History Boys (2004), The Lady in the Van (1999) and The Madness Of George III (1991) must all surely rank somewhere near the top of the pile of great British plays written in the last three decades for all the pervasiveness of the last three.  The Habit of Art “imagines” a meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten in 1973 as a departure for an investigation not just into their specific art and lives but into art and theatre as a universal. Right up my street. And best of all for me at least, Benjamin Britten, for all his flaws, which are far from concealed here, is one of my favourite composers.

My only concern then, perhaps, was the cast. The NT run saw Alex Jennings, near full time Alan Bennett impersonator, take on the role of BB with the sorely missed Richard Griffiths as WHA having stepped in for the indisposed Michael Gambon, which I gather was more than fortuitous. You can take your pick as to your favourite Richard Griffiths role: in Potter, as Hector in The History Boys or as Henry Crabbe. I have two words for you though: Uncle Monty. As for Alex Jennings. Is there nothing this man cannot play? There are literally no duff roles or performances on his CV. The last thing I saw him in on the telly was Unforgotten Series 3. As chilling sociopath doctor Tim Finch. Sh*tting ‘eck as AB might say.

Anyway Matthew Kelly as WHA and David Yelland as BB, and indeed Philip Franks as director of this production, Nick Hytner (who else) having directed first time round, had big boots to fill then. And fill them they did. And then some. This is the first ever revival and I can report that it is really very. very good. And don’t just take my word for it. TMBOAD can vouch for it as well, my viewing partner on this evening, and he is one of the cleverest people I know. Ditto some elegant and cultured Richmond ladies of my acquaintance. The production, in addition to Richmond, has popped up in York, Brighton, Salisbury, Oxford, Guildford and Ipswich. It is in Liverpool as we speak and goes on to Cambridge, Coventry, Salford, Southend and Malvern. Residents, you would be mugs to miss it.

Richmond Theatre doesn’t always get the best of touring productions but here they struck gold. The Original Theatre Company, led by Alistair Whatley and Tom Hackney similarly didn’t quite hit the nail on the head with their last outing, Torben Bett’s Monogamy (Monogamy at the Park Theatre review ***) but on this outing I should look out for their next production at the Park. Richmond also hosts pre West End fare. I can’t think of anything more suited to the West End than this brainy, but not too brainy triumph.

Anyway what about the play. Well as I should have pointed out Messrs Yelland and Kelly don’t actually play BB and WHA. For the players are actually Fitz (Kelly), Henry (Yelland), Donald (John Wark) and Tim (Benjamin Chandler), who are rehearsing a play called Caliban’s Day. The play is set in WHA’s rooms in Christ Church Oxford on the set (keep up) of said play with Company Stage Manager Kay (Veronica Roberts) and her Assistant SM George (Alexandra Guelff) keeping the luvvies, and precious playwright Neil (Robert Mountford) ticking over.

Neil’s play draws it’s title from WHA’s contention that The Tempest was incomplete and requires an epilogue. In the play Donald, playing Humphrey Carpenter, the real-life biographer of WHA and BB amongst others, has come to interview the somewhat impatient WHA (played by Fitz), who it transpires, confuses him with the time-limited rent-boy Stuart, played by Tim, that he has procured. Donald also though steps out to narrate proceedings. Henry as BB arrives to join the set-up. He has been auditioning boys to play the part of Tadzio in BB’s Death in Venice, but wants to discuss his concerns over its plot with WHA, despite them not having met since their falling out 25 years earlier in America after WHA wrote the libretto for the somewhat derided Paul Bunyan. WHA though assumes that BB wants him to replace Myfanwy Piper as librettist for Death in Venice. After his father-in-law was Thomas Mann, the author of Death in Venice.

Neil’s play however, as I said, is in rehearsal so we have Kay kicking things off before Neil arrives and her and George standing in for various minor roles. notably two cleaners. The actors constantly bounce in and out of character, though never confusingly, and this is what allows us to see into them as individuals, as well as into the process of acting and performing. At the same time the play itself and the discussions between the actors. Neil, Kay and George, about what it is saying and why, offers multiple insights into BB and WHA, their art and the society in which they practiced their art. Alan Bennett doesn’t hold back from showing what it meant to be a gay artist through the middle of the C20 nor the paedophiliac controversy that surrounded BB.

Now normally with this much learning on show, play within a play meta-ness, theatrical self-referencing, in fact all round arty-farty pretentiousness, you would be a) rightly very wary and b) waiting for the whole thing to unravel . Not here though and not with Alan Bennett pulling the strings. It is very, very funny, (this time the smut isn’t laboured), but also very, very sincere. It dazzles with just how much intellectual and emotional ground it covers yet never fails to entertain. Even if some of the references pass you by, they did me, the perspicacity of the insight into the “cast” will not. And being a play about an “event” it moves from A to B.

I have seen Matthew Kelly, “tonight Matthew”, on stage in recent years in Richard Bean’s Toast, and for about 20 minutes before rain stopped play (ha, ha), at the Open Air in Pride and Prejudice. He makes for an excellent Fitz, fruity and cantankerous, but still vulnerable, qualities that segue into WHA but with the intellectual spotlight switched on to full intimidating beam. An actor playing an actor playing a man who relished playing the role of artist. David Yelland’s Henry,  like BB, is more tentative, more restrained, who then takes on the needy, sickly and child-like BB and his “obsession” with innocence corrupted. Their debate about Britten’s obsessions in his art, as well as Auden’s creative regrets, are what drew me in the most but I am sure you will find your own point(s) of contact.

Robert Mountford shows us Neil’s exasperation with actors who wish to distort his precious script. Veronica Roberts expertly shows us how much, in this case, maternal nourishment is required to bring a play into being but also shows us how Kay rues her own missed opportunities. John Wark gets to reveal, at one point with surreal humour, just what happens when an actor tries too hard to look for meaning in character.

It is hard to imagine a more appropriate set that Adrian Linford’s rehearsal space, with rough cut scenery and busy props, fitting into a classic proscenium stage, which Frank Matcham’s Richmond Theatre jewel (there she is) perfectly frames in a nod to the play itself. Philip Franks’s direction makes everything perfectly clear, no mean challenge as you might surmise from the above.

By some margin my favourite Bennet play. Mind you next up Mark Gatiss and Adrian Scarborough in The Madness of George III. This is showing live at cinemas but I see there are more than a few tickets left at the Playhouse. So students of Nottingham University. amongst others, save your beer money and go see this instead.

 

 

The Weir at Richmond Theatre review ****

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The Weir

Richmond Theatre, 2nd March 2018

I am jealous of anyone who has never seen Conor McPherson’s 1997 play The Weir. They have something special to look forward to. I last saw it at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh at the beginning of 2016 in a fine production directed by Amanda Gaughan with a wonderful cast of Brian Gleeson, Frank McCusker, Lucianne McEvoy, Gary Lydon and Darragh Kelly. You might think that, given its structure, a series of memorable disclosures over one evening in a pub in Ireland, this was a play which might not warrant repeated viewing. You’d be wrong. I haven’t yet seen any of Conor McPherson’s other plays, bar one, which I hope to correct, but I can guess why this remains the favourite and most oft-performed.

Now Mr McPherson is currently packing them in, and getting award nominations, with Girl From the North Country at the Noel Coward Theatre having transferred from the Old Vic. (Girl From the North Country review ****). He is fortunate in his choice of musical collaborator, a certain Mr B Dylan, and his cast, notably Sheila Atim, Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds and Arinze Kene, but these are his stories, his words and his direction.

For telling stories is what he is good at. Mind you he is in pretty good company. What is it that makes Ireland, per capita, the most talented country in the world when in comes to the dramatic word. This is a wild, unproven assertion, but you take my point. Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Synge, Shaw, Wilde, Boucicault, Yeats (he founded the Abbey), Beckett, Behan, Friel, O’Casey, Walsh, Carr, McDonagh (alright he’s not really Irish). And that’s just the ones whose work I have seen. There are tons more.

Maybe it’s the education system, (which champions the word over other art forms), the civil structure, the pub culture, the craic. (I really do not mean to offend with gratuitous paddywhackery here). Maybe its the Catholic Church which tells a lot of lurid stories. Maybe its the long, and deeply held, oral tradition. Maybe it simply reflects past success. Irish writing outside the dramatic form also excels in the short story and the episodic. Maybe its the breadth of the diaspora. If you go round the world you have a lot of stories to tell. But none of this is particular or peculiar to Ireland and, anyway, such generalisations are surely slightly patronising.

Whatever the reason we should all be grateful and The Weir reminds us why. It’s a cold, windy night. Garage owner Jack, (veteran Sean Murray who I think has the juiciest part), comes in to the village pub, (perfectly realised in Madeleine Girling’s set), and pours himself a drink. From a bottle after tetchily discovering the Guinness tap is off. Eventually Brendan, (here charmingly played by Sam O’Mahony), comes from the house behind and officially opens his bar. They chat about their day. They are joined by mild odd-job man Jim (John O’Dowd) and they discuss the arrival of Valerie in the village. Finally local boy made good businessman Finbar (Louis Dempsey) arrives with Valerie herself (Natalie Radmall-Quirke, who is the only member of the cast I had seen before, in Cheek By Jowl Winter’s Tale). Valerie is renting a house and Finbar is showing her around, as she moves from Dublin. Jack and Finbar start verbally sparring with each other, Jack plainly jealous of Finbar’s success and Finbar overly cocky. This is in part a display to impress Valerie. We know these people even before the four mysterious supernatural stories emerge in succession. After the stories, we know them even better.

I’ll stop there in case you haven’t seen the play. Suffice to say all human, and beyond, life is there in the words of the five characters over 100 minutes or so. It is rooted in rural, Irish life, and there is no action to speak of, but at this performance, like I suspect all other performances, the audience is transfixed, so clearly Mr McPherson has tapped into universal truths. Myth is a powerful force in Ireland, and Mr McPherson is not the first of his countrymen to incorporate it into his plays, with Brian Friel an arch exponent for example. Others have also borrowed from the tradition: most recently Jez Butterworth in The Ferryman. Yet The Weir has a kind of special power because the stories are simultaneously extraordinary and day-to-day.

Moreover it isn’t just the monologues that suck you in. The dialogue is also compelling. These are lives lived, funny, sad, tender, sometimes desperate, filled with memory. Drink is an equivocal lubricant, opening the characters up and exaggerating emotions. I haven’t had a drink in years (don’t ask) but The Weir reminds me what I am missing. For despite the intimation of lives that have been blighted by sorrow or frustration these people seem to have had an enjoyable, fruitful evening in each other’s company. Think about it. One way or another your best memories will probably involve having a laugh or a heart to heart with friends. That’s life.

A superb play very well realised by the cast and director Adele Thomas. There were one or two moments where the transitions where a little ticklish, and the fading of the lights into the stories was a bit obvious, but it doesn’t really matter. When a play is this good, and the cast this attuned, then it can only be a success. This English Touring Theatre and Mercury Theatre Colchester co-production is nearly done I am afraid, just a couple more nights in Cambridge, but I see ETT’s next production is A Streetcar Named Desire. If it is coming anywhere near you I would seek it out based on the handful of ETT productions I have seen to date.

 

The Wipers Times at Richmond Theatre review **

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The Wipers Times

Richmond Theatre, 27th September 2017

The Wipers Times has been knocking about for a couple of years know having morphed from the TV drama written by Ian Hislop and regular partner Nick Newman (which I didn’t see) into the play version at Newbury and then the Arts Theatre (which I missed) and now a UK tour. So off I trotted with the SO and MIL, hoping for a satirical treat.

Don’t get me wrong. This is an interesting story, the production of a newspaper for the troops in WWI, with some spirited and well drilled performances, led by James Dutton as Captain Roberts and George Kemp as Lieutenant Pearson, and a cunning set. It is just a little bit too monotone and the laughs just a little bit too lazy to really work. The voices of Ian Hislop and Nick Newman (a satirical cartoonist in his day job) come over loud and clear but, after a while, they start to grate. Mr Hislop has many fine qualities but I do find he is sometimes just a little too pleased with himself. And here it just seems that he and his partner have taken the easy way through the story rather than challenging themselves, or us the audience. I was also too often thinking of the antecedents and influences here, notably Oh What a Lovely War during the musical numbers (often brutally short) and Blackadder.

As the sarcastic one-liners bemoaning the futility of war piled up, and the Toffs and Tommies fitted neatly into their assigned roles, I was left hoping for something that might pull me up in my seat and snap me out of the faintly amused torpor into which I sank. I am afraid this didn’t come. A bit more about how these resourceful characters were able to produce the newspaper would have been interesting as would a bit more about the political context in which the newspaper operated. Some of the stiff upper lip gallows humour might have been sacrificed as might the verbatim delivery of extracts from the paper itself. A few interesting asides, for example on the Michelin Guide to the Battlefields and the perils of drunkenness on the front, were introduced but generally the narrative followed a fairly calculated arc.

I wanted to like this so much more than I did and, if your expectations are not set too high, there is enough here to make you laugh and think. Yet I was not moved and even at just a couple of hours it still felt a bit drawn out. I wasn’t alone. SO, and even the MIL who is normally a little more forgiving, were underwhelmed. Sorry. 

 

The Best Man at Richmond Theatre review ****

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The Best Man

Richmond Theatre, 2nd October 2017

N.B. The Best Man has, as I confidently expected, found its way to the West End, to wit the Playhouse Theatre where it opens on 24th February and runs through until 12th May. Well worth a visit and not ridiculously priced, though steer clear of the Upper Circle unless you are a very small person.

Gore Vidal is very near the top of my list of invitees for that perfect dinner party. Winston Churchill, Karl Marx, Socrates, David Hume, John Rawls, Alfred the Great, Charlemagne and Nelson Mandela would be there too. (Note this is the politics bash – music, art, drama would follow in subsequent weeks if the caterers were free). He is the quintessential liberal who would be both horrified and amused, and not at all surprised for this is what he expected, by the America of today, as he was by the America of his lifetime.

In my humble opinion he is one of the greatest novelists of the second half of the C20. Whether it be his novels examining the nature of sexuality, The City and the Pillar, Myra Breckenridge or Myron, the fantastical satires of Messiah, Kalki or Duluth, the ancient histories such as Creation and Julian or the American histories of Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Empire, Hollywood, Washington DC and The Golden Age, there is stunning prose and visible erudition on show on every page. Best of all though these are page-turning stories, whether “fact”, fiction or a mixture of the two, with utterly believable characters. (real or imagined). Indeed I would say that the fact that his novels are overflowing with plot is one of the reasons why he is not as highly regarded as he should be – they are just not as hard work as the US cultural elite of the 1950s and 1960s would have liked. Moreover GV himself was the very antithesis of the macho artistic and literary culture of that era. He also chose to p*ss off most of the literary, artistic and political establishment in his native US with his barbed epigrams and constant feuding. Here was a man who thought he was better than everyone around him, because he was better than everyone around him.

Being the very clever fellow he was he turned his hand to screenplays as well as novels and brilliant essays, with one of his best works for film being the re-write of Ben-Hur, in which he mugged off Charlton Heston who seemingly failed to grasp the homosexual sub-text of the movie. He also wrote a handful of very fine plays which reflect the concerns of his novels. The Best Man which premiered in 1960, and was made into a film in 1964, is the most often revived I believe.

So, as you might imagine, I was very pleased when I heard about this latest production since I don’t think this has ever graced a major London (I know, technically Surrey) stage. A very strong cast has been assembled by impresario Bill Kenwright with Simon Evans entrusted with directorial duties after his smashing Arturo Ui at the Donmar (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar Warehouse review ****), Alligators at the Hampstead and the exceptional trilogy of miserabilism, Bug, The Dazzle and Fool for Love, at the now defunct Found 111. The liberal, middle classes masses of Windsor, Brighton, Bath and Cambridge have had, or will have, a chance to see The Best Man before, I assume, a West End run.

And you should see it. Every word of every line is as fresh as the day GV wrote it. It is, I admit, locked in its time and place, two hotel rooms at an imagined Democratic convention in the early 1960’s, but this does not mean the issues that GV raises about political culture are not as relevant today as they were then. Simon Evans and designer Michael Taylor have very wisely stuck exactly to the period of the play’s action, and use simple devices to switch between the two rooms.

Martin Shaw, commanding as ever with his gravelly voice and still demeanour, plays Secretary of State William Russell. His rival for the nomination is Senator Joseph Cantwell, a remarkablly bullish performance from Hollywood veteran Jeff Fahey. These two legends of the screen have a bit of form together having played good guy/bad guy before in the London stage version of 12 Angry Men a few years ago. Then, as now, they are perfectly cast as dualistic political opposites. Russell is the archetypal “good’ liberal politician who believes there are limits to what can, and should be done, on the road to power. Cantwell believes nothing should get in his way and is prepared to abandon truth in order to get want he wants. As I think Russell observes in the play there is very little idealogical difference between the two (GV despaired of the lack of real choice in American politics). It is the how, not the what, that distinguishes the political complexion of these two men.

Russell is a philanderer but his wife Alice, another fine performance from Glynis Barber, is prepared to stand by him in public on the road to Democratic nomination and potentially the White House. Mabel Cantwell, played by Honeysuckle Weeks with a little too much of the Southern Belle which made a few lines difficult to follow, is a more “old-fashioned” wife. It would be nice to think that, near 60 years on, these characters would look archaically sexist. Unfortunately I am not so sure they do.

We then have the mighty Jack Shepherd as the Trumanesque Art Hockstader, the outgoing President, whose homespun country boy public persona is matched by ruthless scheming behind the scenes. You may well know Mr Shepherd as Wycliffe off the telly but he can still command a stage, and caper about, even in his late70s. Our cast is completed by Gemma Jones as Mrs Gamadge, the harridan of the Democrat ladies, Anthony Howell and Jim Creighton as respective advisors and Emma Campbell-Jones, Simon Hepworth, Ian Houghton, Craig Pinder and David Tarkenter as the press, various senators and delegates and a pair of accessories for when the fight between our two nominees gets really dirty.

I will refrain from delving into the detail of the plot: suffice to say there was enough of a twisting narrative to keep the pensioners of Richmond on the edge of their seats as we moved through the various paybacks in the second half. As I say GV couldn’t help but write great stories, and he was, after all, a Democrat insider. The characters here are not particularly well hidden proxies for the 1960 Democratic nominees, with Russell as Adlai Stevenson who GV supported, and the Cantwells as the Kennedys, who were oft the subject of GV’s barbs. GV also uses thinly veiled episodes from the life of Joseph McCarthy to inform Joe Cantwell. Subtle it ain’t.

Whilst some of the historic specificity might be lost on a contemporary GB audience the moral arguments which flow from GV’s caustic wit will not. The play is very funny, (OK maybe I laughed a bit more than some), but this does not mask the seriousness of the messages about political culture. There were a couple of timing issues at the performance I attended, (with the SO who has stamped her approval on the endeavour), and a brisker pace might have paid dividends in the second half of Act 1, but all in all, this is a very fine production, with a very fine cast, of a very fine play by a very fine writer.

Highly recommended. And make sure you read some GV thereafter.

 

 

The Crucible at Richmond Theatre review ****

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The Crucible

Richmond Theatre, 15th April 2017

So in the interests of full disclosure Arthur Miller’s Crucible is one of my favourite plays. I know it is not original, I know that it is not historically accurate (doh, it is a play, it doesn’t have to be), I know it is, like most of his work, slyly misogynistic (though here that may reflect the society in which it is set), I know it has all the subtlety of a wrecking ball. But it is powerful allegory, it does illuminate the dangers of groupthink, scapegoating and the politics of hate, both in 1950’s America, and, probably whenever and wherever it has been revived, and it is a cracking story. So yah boo to you Miller haters.

So what does a good Crucible need? Well it does need space and time to get to the boil. In this production it felt like the fear of dragging on too much got to director and cast which meant for a bit of a breathless first act. Motives and jealousies need to be teased out and here there was a bit too much urgency to get through the lines. It also needs to create strong sexual attraction between Abigail and John P but still capture as much ambiguity in action as it can. It needs a constant and deep affection between John and Elizabeth P but there is still a lot wrong in this marriage. Largely I think the three actors playing Abigail (Lucy Keirl), Elizabeth (Victoria Yeates) and John (Eion Slattery) got this right. It needs a Reverend Parris (played by Cornelius Clarke) whose devotion to God and Mammon comes as a package, a Reverend Hale who ends up having his whole world view upended and a Judge Hathorne whose cognitive dissonance at the outcome of his prosecuting is plainly visible but who will not relent. Charlie Condou as Reverend Hale turned in a fine performance whilst Patrick Mackenzie as Hathorne was just a little less convincing.

Overall though this was a strong production. The set was a bit prosaic and greater use of light and sound might have offered a little more dramatic support but this is a great play that was done justice here. I gather this will tour to Brighton, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow so if it comes nearby definitely worth a look.

LS, whose business literally is drama, and LN, who tells it like it is, sometimes disconcertingly, enjoyed it. And perhaps even more enjoyed an impromptu meeting with our two Reverends and our John Proctor, as they wolfed down a pizza between matinee and evening performance, in the restaurant to which we had retired. As good a way as any to break the fourth wall I guess.