The Starry Messenger at the Wyndham’s Theatre review ***

The Starry Messenger

Wyndham’s Theatre, 5th August 2019

The Tourist, despite his evident theatre addiction, rarely jumps in to secure a ticket early for the “star” vehicles that crop up in the West End. It usually pays to wait to see how well regarded play and production are. Demand often adjusts to supply, pushing down price, in a pleasingly classical economics way. So far this year the strategy has worked for True West, The Price, Rosmersholm, Bitter Wheat and this, The Starry Messenger. I enjoyed Kenneth Lonergan’s last film Manchester by the Sea and see he had a hand in the writing of Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York, though plainly that film’s sprawling genius largely stems from Daniel Day-Lewis’s turn as Bill the Butcher. The reviews of A Starry Messenger from its original off-Broadway production in 2009 were also largely promising, (though it apparently got off to a very shaky start).

Matthew Broderick had a small part in MBTS and in Mr Lonergan’s epic failure Margaret, and larger roles in a whole string of Hollywood pap that has passed me by. However, he is probably still most famous for his early turn in cult teen movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which is, IMHO, a bloody awful film, and, for the Tourist, in Alexander Payne’s Election, which is certainly not. And maybe also for being married to Sarah Jessica Parker, a terrible actor, though maybe that is the fault of the execrable Sex and the City in which she “starred”. And for a tragic traffic accident for which he seems to have escaped punishment. (The Tourist takes a dim view of the scale of justice usually meted out in such circumstances).

His co-star here was Elizabeth McGovern. Another Hollywood stalwart that the Tourist barely recognises. And this despite her living in Blighty and treading the boards in London in recent years. You will no doubt know her best as someone called Cora, the Countess of Grantham, in Downton Abbey. Of which I can truthfully, and proudly, say, I have only seen for maybe ten minutes in total, and that by accident. This is what comes of being an intellectual snob, devoting one’s cultural energies to quality British TV drama, art-house cinema from around the world, and elevating the theatre above all other performing arts.

Mr Broderick plays the stoical Mark Williams, a public lecturer in astronomy, at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. Ms McGovern is his chipper schoolteacher wife Anne. They have one, unseen though not unheard, teenage son. Mark is middle-aged, not quite in crisis, but a bemused, and amused, pedant whose life is passing him by. He still loves Anne but gentle bickering is their default mode of exchange. When animated, Puerto Rican, single Mom, nurse, Angela Vasquez stumbles into his lecture hall though, something of his life force returns. They have an unlikely affair. Tragedy strikes. So far so predictable. What makes all this cliche forgivable is Mr Lonergan’s ear for dialogue. These are ordinary people, doing ordinary things, in their ordinary lives, but with a depth of feeling which reaches for the infinite. They talk but don’t really listen. Misunderstanding and frustration abounds. At least that’s the idea. Hammered home with all the stargazey, metaphorical opportunity afforded by Mr Williams’s employ, especially right at the end. Faith plainly is not the answer in KL’s book.

It goes on a bit, nearly three hours, and, whilst I can remember the basics of the plot, and, Chiara Stevenson’s elegant set, with its night sky backdrop, the detail is already fading. It is fortunate that Matthew Broderick is playing a relatively dull man. Otherwise I might have mistaken him for a relatively bad actor. As it turns out, and particularly in the more humorous passages, his performance actually works. He is a modest man and, though, to paraphrase Churchill, he has much to be modest about, he is still striving for a good life.

Ms McGovern is an altogether more convincing stage presence but sadly we see too little of her and her part is underwritten. Rosalind Eleazar as Anela sails convincingly through the more hackneyed of her character’s traits, whether in the awkward and anguished scenes with Mark in her apartment, or in those with the terminally ill Norman (Jim Norton), the crusty old boy in her care, and his tetchy daughter Doris (Sinead Matthews), which provides the sub-plot. There are are regular laughs, often extracted from the regular members of the class Mark teaches, notably the some way behind the curve Mrs Pysner (Jenny Galloway), and from the wonderfully tactless, serial course-attender Ian (Sid Sagar). (I see that Kieran Culkin, another relater KL collaborator, played Ian in the original Broadway production. If you haven’t yet seen his turn as Roman Roy in HBO’s Succession then you are in for a treat). Another highlight is Mark’s conversations with his more successful, though still supportive as he pits Mark forward for a research role, academic colleague Arnold (Joplin Sibtain).

Chekhov it ain’t. But sometimes, in its wriggling ambivalence, it does a fair impression. KL, as you will probably have surmised, has spent far more time on the detail of the lines than the novelty of the plot or the wider context. But somehow, despite the irritations, I sort of quite liked it. Sam Yates last outing was with Ella Road’s excellent debut play The Phlebotomist but prior to that he, as here, rose to the occasion to direct acting royalty (notably Christian Slater) in the excellent Glengarry Glen Ross revival.

The original Hayden Planetarium, as we see at the end of the play, closed in 1997, to be reborn as Rose Centre foe Earth and Space attached to the American Museum of Natural History, (which I know from bitter experience feels almost as large as the universe itself). As he reveals in the programme he and Matthew Broderick went their together when they were kids. So now I understand why he has been so generous to his lifelong friend. After all, in the end, friends and relationships are all we really have.

Loot at the Park Theatre review ****

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Loot

Park Theatre, 14th September 2017

There has been a lot of progress in the last 50 years in this country. Good people are more tolerant and accepting of the identity of others (though there are still plenty of bigoted d*ckheads to be found polluting the discourse), The fairy tales of religions are losing their grip on peoples’ thoughts, (though some still get fired up by this tosh and just will not leave us unbelievers alone). The police will always have unconscionable biases and corruptions but great strides have been made in remedying institutional failings.

Oh and the idea of shoving a dead body around a set for comedic effect in the theatre is unlikely to outrage any but the most conservative of Mail readers. All this means that the dark satire of Joe Orton’s famous play Loot is now muted, and the outrage which greeted its first performances seems quaint to this observer. BUT it is still, when performed well, a very funny, subversive play and its targets are still worth taking aim at. Taking the piss intelligently out of the institutions which create the superstructure is still a vital artistic imperative. And an antidote to all those digital crusaders who get wound up for nanoseconds about ephemera.

And be assured this production, directed by Michael Fentiman, at the Park is very good indeed, and it would be a shame if the remaining sold out performances are the last we see of it. The set and costumes from Gabriella Slade are exemplary – the action cleverly all takes place in an all-black funeral parlour with a hefty dose of religious iconography. The costumes put us slap bang in the middle of the 1960s, not the flower power generation but the more mundane, tired, conservative world which was the reality. The production kicks off with a speech from that tiresome crone Mary Whitehouse. And we have an actor as corpse rather than a dummy which adds a new and funny dimension.

The excellent cast take a great delight in playing up the characters faults and rapidly firing off the lines in the faux sincere way that they require (and largely avoiding the Carry On-esque trap that bedevils amateur interpretations). Everyone here is on the take in some way. Following a “bank job” lovers Dennis (Calvin Demba) and Hal (Sam Frenchum) need somewhere to store the loot. Hal’s Mum has just passed away but her murderous nurse Fay (Sinead Matthews) has designs on his Dad, McCleary (Ian Redford), or, more exactly, his money. Truscott (Christopher Fulford) is the copper investigating the bank robbery but poses as an inspector from the Water Board to grill the others. Cue the acid humour and farcical form and a conclusion where everyone gains financially though loses morally, not that they give a sh*t.

Sam Frenchum show’s up Hal’s jealously in the face of Dennis’s bisexuality and avarice. This is where the restoration of the cuts demanded by the Lord Chamberlain (yes kids we had a bloke in a wig telling us what we could watch until the 1960s) is most welcome, sharpening the ambivalent relationship between the two lads. Shades of Orton and Halliwell’s own relationship? Ian Redford’s McLeary feigns, but cannot entirely claim, innocence. Sinead Matthews is outstanding as the hypocritical Irish nurse and her comic timing is flawless. And Christopher Fulford as Truscott defines splenetic as our bent copper whose twisting of judicial logic ends up with, for example, the priceless concept of Christ’s crucifixion as a put up job. Oh and Anah Ruddin as Mrs McLeavy almost steals the show despite not uttering a word.

So no longer a shocking black satire: more a clever parody with astute commentary on “that old whore society” as Orton observed.  I am guessing it helps if you have a feel for the period but the stereotypes and absurdities are recognisable and the laughs abundant. Like Ben Johnson but without the need for a degree in Ben Johnson studies to understand it. If the production pops up somewhere else (beyond Newbury where it is off to next) take a look. It is perfectly possible to make a sh*tshow of Loot which entirely misses the points in the pursuit of forced laughs and overplayed farce. Indeed, by all accounts, the first productions failed until Orton rewrote and licked it into shape and the 1970 film version is weak.

If you are interested get along to the Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain (Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***). Not a treasure trove of great art but a fascinating journey through gay history in Britain in the century or so proceeding the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which partially decriminalised homosexuality. Orton’s play premiered a couple of years before the Act. The exhibition shows some of the library books that Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell “defaced” and for which they were unbelievably imprisoned for 6 months.