God of Carnage at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***

God of Carnage

Rose Theatre Kingston, 11th February 2020

I remain ambivalent about the work of French playwright Yasmina Reza. I can see why she would wish to lampoon “middle-class” mores in her contemporary comedies of manners. There is, after all, a long and illustrious dramatic tradition of doing so. Especially en francais. Think Moliere. Or French cinema. I can also take pleasure from the set-ups as they develop. That is assuming that the master of French translation, Christopher Hampton, is faithful in his rendition, which I don’t think anyone would argue with.

No the problem lies in the characters she creates and the plots she weaves. Both are subservient to the message. And the message is not nearly as profound as it threatens to be. The plays are short, God of Carnage is just 90 minutes, but, damningly, could be shorter. Put simply, as wiser heads than this have observed, the plays are not nearly as clever as they think they are. In contrast to their illustrious forbears, which are. If you don’t believe me try Theatre L’Odeon’s School for Wives, streaming now, or Renoir’s La regle de jeu, which is all it’s cracked up to be.

Anyway, knowing this, from previous performances of Ms Reza’s Art, about three friends who fall out over a contemporary work of art which one of them purchases, and Life x3 where the comic staple of a disastrous dinner party is replayed three times with slight plot variations, the SO and I settled in at the Rose for this Theatre Royal Bath transfer. I see Billers nominated God of Carnage to appear in the Guardian’s top 50 plays of this century: a rare misstep from the old boy. It was lauded during its original West End in 2008, (it debuted in Germany in 2006), with a cast of Ralph Fiennes, Tamsin Grieg, Janet McTeer and Ken Stott no less, and with Old Vic head honcho Matthew Warchus directing, winning an Olivier and packing in the punters, but that, to me, looks generous.

Of course, it could be that this production didn’t do it justice but, with tragi-comedy/satire expert Lindsay Posner in the director’s chair and London émigré Elizabeth McGovern and Nigel Lindsay and Simon Paisley Day and Samantha Spiro as the two couples, I doubt it. (Just look at their combined stage credits if you don’t believe me). Eleven-year old Ferdinand has belted his would be chum Bruno in the playground because he wouldn’t let him join the gang knocking out two of his teeth. The parents meet to chew things over. It starts civilly but once the drink flows and worldviews collide things get tasty. EMG is Veronica the anally-retentive, passive-aggressive American liberal, writing a book on Darfur, with NL, somewhat improbably, her vulgar self-made man husband. SPD is an arrogant lawyer, never off his phone, who sees no value for the meeting, SS his initially reasonable, then increasingly precious wife, a “wealth management consultant”. All then have money and all the attitudes that, at least in Ms Reza’s eyes, come with it. Misogyny, racism, homophobia are all given a run-out.

I can imagine that the changes of tone, from exaggerated politeness to barbed accusation could offer greater heft in another production, (Roman Polanski adapted it with YR’s screenplay, for the cinema and smart punters rate it), but this came across as more outre sit-com, and, eventually farce, than biting satire.

Still, in fairness, we laughed, quite a lot, and, occasionally, squirmed, as the adults regressed into the very childish argument they have come together to resolve. YR can’t but help chucking in some lines of cod-philosophy which become increasingly grating, and the characters have an annoying habit of telegraphing their lines, but, when it does hit home, it is undeniably effective. Peter McKintosh’s set, and props, offer an accurate check-list of bourgeois taste, and sharp colour contrast, though the light fitting which hangs, Damocles-like, over the room is a bit heavy-handed. LP’s direction works hard to match movement to text. No-one sits still for a moment. And, although the Tourist has eschewed the drink for near a decade now, it’s a bit disconcerting to see four people go from a civilised sip to barking shit-faced in the space of half an hour.

Simultaneously irritating and entertaining then.

The Price at the Wyndham’s Theatre review ****

The Price

Wyndham’s Theatre, 10th April 2019

Pretty pleased with myself here. Played chicken with Delfont Mackintosh Theatres and won, eventually getting a cheap, in a known, if not entirely comfortable, berth at the Wyndham’s near the end of the run. Arthur Miller, David Suchet, Brendan Coyle and some very strong reviews from the original outing at the Theatre Royal Bath. I was never going to miss it but patience was rewarded.

Though not in quite the way I expected. The big draw here is obviously the masterly David Suchet who the Tourist has not see on stage nearly enough times, though his turns in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and All My Sons are cherished memories. And the chance to see a rarely performed Miller play, the second in this year’s unofficial London season, (The American Clock at the Old Vic, The Crucible at the Yard, All My Sons at the Old Vic and Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic – maybe someone should have another crack at the plays from the early 1990s, The Ride Down Mt Morgan, The Last Yankee and Broken Glass).

Mr Suchet plays Gregory Solomon, the elderly Jewish anti dealer who comes to give a valuation for the contents of the Franz family apartment. Mr Solomon is not however the central character in the play. That belongs to Victor Franz, a senior policeman, who together with his wife, Esther, meet Mr Solomon at the apartment having finally decided to sell up. They are unexpectedly joined by Victor’s estranged surgeon brother Walter. Cue the usual Arthur Miller family disintegration as the past is raked over, centred on the two brother’s relationship with their difficult father and the life opportunities, missed or otherwise, this therefore afforded them. Secrets spill out. Arguments ensue. Some tentative reconciliation. Life goes on.

This reminds me. If you should sense that you are stumbling into an Arthur Miller type. dysfunctional family type vibe, here’s my advice. Got it all out in the open early doors. Otherwise you risk one of these interminable confessionals. Great theatre. Not good for the rellies though. All My Sons next which makes The Price look like a minor fraternal tiff.

Anyway, not having to shoulder the burden of dissension, Mr Suchet is free to flex his comic muscles. Which he does. Brilliantly. You can probably guess that there is more than a whiff of cliche about Gregory Solomon but David Suchet still lands a laugh with every wisecrack, whilst still building a believable picture of a character who has watched his world change around him. It’s not just the words. It’s the way every action, every dart of the eyes, arch of the head or twist of the fingers serves an acting purpose. Even peeling a hard boiled egg. Which makes his slightly clunky transition into a sort of Chorus, as Mr Solomon acts as the moral arbiter, (there’s a clue in his name folks), between the brothers and Esther, entirely plausible. You can always see the joins in Mr Miller’s plotting but like Shakespeare and Euripides all is forgiven as the drama is ramped up to the next level.

However the performance of this evening came from Sion Lloyd as Victor Franz. Brendan Coyle, who I can vouch is as good as it gets on his day, was indisposed so Mr Lloyd as understudy stepped in. Hard to believe he hadn’t been there throughout the run. Timing perfect. The early exchanges with Sara Stewart’s Esther, (also excellent despite limited material), quickly revealed the frustration and disappointment underneath his genial exterior. When it came to the set-to scenes with Adrian Lukis’s imperious Walter, as it becomes clear that Victor was left to pick up the pieces after the family business collapsed in the Crash, freeing Walter to go on to college and secure financial success, he really came to life though. A put-upon man visibly not comfortable in his own skin to happy with his lot. This is where the rift between the brothers becomes the metaphor, Miller’s constant preoccupation, for the damage to individuals and families wrought by the systematic failure of the American, capitalist, Dream. Price, or value, as Solomon points out in his key intervention. Deal, or no deal. The Price is drawn from the same autobiographical inspiration for Miller as The American Clock – Miller’s brother Kermit became the Walter while he went on to academic and writing success – the family textile business having gone under in the Depression.

It is a wordy play, and can feel it, especially when the laughs fade in the second half, highlighted further by Simon Higlett’s claustrophobic set, furniture alarmingly suspended from the cueing to encase the proscenium stage. But, as usual with Miller, all the words count and there is no sense of pointless repetition. Moreover director Jonathan Church is unafraid of letting the dialogue and actors do their work, no snatching here, so that all the resonances, psychological, mythological and political, cumulatively hit home. It isn’t vintage Miller, no real sub-plots to open up the central arguments, but it is easy to see why, when it does crop up, (it didn’t bowl then over on its first outing in 1968), it can fill houses and allows actors to give of their best.

Which brings me back to Sion Lloyd. It looks like Mr Lloyd is a seasoned performer in the nether-world of West End musicals which the Tourist studiously avoids. On the basis on this performance I hope he finds a few meaty. “straight” theatre roles to get his teeth into. David Suchet applauded him generously at the curtain call. I don’t think he was just being professionally courteous.

Switzerland at the Ambassadors Theatre review **

Switzerland

Ambassador’s Theatre, 16th November 2018

A couple of weeks prior to Switzerland the Tourist took in another play by Joanna Murray-Smith, Honour, at the Park Theatre. A very fine cast and a sharp enough dissection of a marriage broken by the cliche of the husband leaving for a younger woman, but alarmingly contrived, and borderline pretentious.

Still Switzerland has a sound reputation and the reviews for this Theatre Royal Bath production were pretty strong. And the SO is a massive fan of the talented Tom Ripley, especially in Anthony Minghella’s cinematic version (as opposed to Rene Clement’s earlier Plein Soleil). So a play which pitched the famously cantankerous Patricia Highsmith, author most famously of the Ripley novels, holed up in the mountains, and a fresh-faced flunkey from her American publisher, looked to be right up our strasse. It wasn’t difficult to guess that the young man would likely take on the attributes of Ms Highsmith’s sophisticated sociopath but even so we were intrigued by the premise.

Metaphysical conflation of an author and their most famous creation may not be entirely original but it should be the entry point into an illuminating and powerful drama. Switzerland started off well enough. William Dudley’s set delivered the lofty interior of a Swiss chalet, complete with distant mountain views and Ms Highsmith’s alarming antique armoury on the walls. The lighting of Chris Davey and sound of Mick Pool both got with the thriller project. A hint of Sleuth and especially Deathtrap, pervaded the stage, and, as it happens, the plot. (BTW both of these are better plays/films – in the case of Sleuth in either cinematic version). Phyllis Logan as Patricia Highsmith certainly looked and sounded the part: a lifetime of booze, fags and isolation leaving her character hoarse and suspicious. Callum Findlay, as the visitor Edward, had enough of the wide-eyed, naif superfan to persuade us that she would have let him stay. There’s a bit of a gear crunch as the irascible Highsmith is then persuaded by Edward to drum up a new Ripley plot, but so be it. 

However, slowly but surely the suspense then starts to drain out of the Ms Murray-Smith’s text. She piles up the biographical details of PH’s ghastly childhood (let’s just say she and her Mummy didn’t get on), adult misanthropy and overt racism, alcoholism, depression, illness, sexuality. Maybe she was insecure and damaged, particularly by the way her talent was dismissed because of the “genre” she chose to work in, and behaved this way for effect, or maybe she was just a nasty piece of work. The play doesn’t delve too deep. The attempt to turn Edward into a vision of Tom with a dapper pressed suit (out of a rucksack no less) and a whisky tumbler in hand is unconvincing. Tom Ripley is undoubtedly one of the C20’s greatest existential (anti-) heroes, up there with Mersault, Antoine Roquentin, Raskolnikov, Patrick Bateman, Rick Deckard, Port Moresby, Gregor Samsa and those two tramps. He is well-mannered, cultured, intelligent but also a narcissistic serial killer, a con-man whose sexuality is unresolved. He literally gets away with murder. What’s not to like? That is the whole point. We can’t help liking him. 

There is not enough opportunity for Calum Findlay to get anywhere close to Ripley though. After a while it begins to feel that all we are getting is Patricia Highsmith’s Wiki page and some quick notes from the 1999 film. I was hoping for and expecting some shift in the direction of the play, not a twist as such, but some leap that took the story beyond prosopography (yep it is a word, look it up, I am trying to find the moment when I can drop it into a casual conversation). It never came. The alter-ego theory was laid out but never explored. So I ended up underwhelmed as did the SO, for broadly similar reasons. For a play about a writer whose books are artfully dramatic this seemed a shame. 

This was even more of a surprise given director Lucy Bailey’s recent pedigree. She directed the two very recent successful Agatha Christie adaptations, Lover From A Stranger and Witness For The Prosecution. The Tourist hasn’t seen either (yet) but, being a high falutin’ sort of fellow he did see Cave, Tansy Davies’s latest opera at the Printworks, which she directed and which was terrific (if you like that sort of thing – which I do). She also has a string of feted RSC Shakespeare to her credit.

So it is, with regret as Sir Alan would have it, that I have to report that Switzerland was a disappointment as a play if not in its execution. In contrast to its predecessor here at the charmingly intimate Ambassadors, Foxfinder which was a fine play let down by the realisation of the revival. 

The Real Thing at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****

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The Real Thing

Rose Theatre Kingston, 10th October 2017

Thinking cap donned it’s a short hop to the Rose for the next leg in my Stoppard education. And what a fine lesson this production, (shared with the Theatre Royal Bath and Cambridge Arts Theatre), tuned out to be. Once director Stephen Unwin, (a great friend of the Rose from his tenure up to 2014), and his fine cast got into the swing of things the dexterity of Mr Stoppard’s fabrication was revealed in all its glory.

Fabrication of course being the key word since there is an awful lot of artifice on show here. First performed in 1982 this is a play about life imitating art through the fabric of love, marriage and infidelity. It was instructive to see this production the day after the new Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith as Chekhov deals with similar themes and is TS’s inspiration. Given TS’s mighty brain I suspect the parallels are not co-incidental. That’s the thing with Stoppard. The more you think about it the more there is to think about. I sometimes wish I had a magical pause button when watching TS plays so I can just stop and soak in all the rich layers.

The action kicks off in the tastefully furnished home of architect Max and Charlotte (a perfect pitched set from designer Jonathan Fensom). Charlotte has just returned from a business jaunt. Max accuses her of adultery. Charlotte flounces out. We see Charlotte again but now she is married to playwright Henry. Turns out the previous scene was the play within a play from the pen of Henry. Called House of Cards. Doh. The real Charlotte is not best pleased with the lines given to the character Charlotte. Then the real Max (yep, you got it, he is called Max) turns up with actor wife Annie. Henry needles Annie about her involvement with cause celebre Brodie, a soldier imprisoned for protesting. Turns out though that this an act as we discover Henry and Annie are having an affair. The affair is subsequently revealed, Annie leaves Max for Henry. Henry tries to capture his feelings for Annie in a script. Act 2 and we move on a couple of years. Annie wants Henry to ghost write Brodie’s play. Henry thinks this work is awful. Annie gets cast in Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Henry visits Charlotte and daughter Debbie, who has some pointed views on monogamy. Annie has an affair with young actor Billy though this may again be a rehearsal. Henry’s jealousy spills over. Brodie pitches up and it turns out he is a dickhead but mimics Henry’s own arrogance. He leaves and we end with news of Max’s new marriage.

The play has a hefty dose of autobiography and it is not difficult to see TS himself in the character of Henry, notably in the monologue about the exactness of prose, which is a classic, and in the questioning of the politics of the left. Henry is a massive intellectual snob and a dreadful pedant. The dissection of the business of acting, and the playful structure of the drama with its echoes and returns, is so elegant it takes your breathe away. But what I found most fascinating here was the exploration of doubt in the context of love and fidelity. Nothing new about that but the way TS keeps probing Henry’s own vulnerabilities is what makes this play special and is what makes it a much more “direct” watch than some of TS’s other smartarse plays. Within this elegant fabrication of words and plot there is are real people bursting with contradictions. You might not like him, and you may find his cerebral (mandatory word in all TS reviews) elitism suffocating, but you can definitely see where Henry is coming from.

Aim high. Don’t mix up the person with his or her art. Don’t abandon the romantic ideal. Beware of politics in art. Think about how people “see” you and how people “see” themselves. These are just a few of the things I got to musing on during and after the performance. I just don’t know how TS manages to pack this much in yet still provide an entertaining, and of course, very funny story.

As you might have surmised this is only going to work if the actor playing Henry is up to the task. Laurence Fox indubitably was. It seems to me there needs to be the right length of pause before Henry delivers his inevitable “last word” in each conversation as his brain runs through the possibilities. Mr Fox seemed to get this and expressed Henry’s faint incomprehension of those around him. Adam Jackson-Smith’s Max was suitably colourless. Rebecca Johnson as Charlotte and, especially, Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Annie were both impressive in the way they captured the women’s brisk efficiency of life and love in the face of Henry’s self-absorption. Santino Smith as Brodie and Kit Young as Billy were spot on with the few lines they had and I will look out for Venice van Someren, who played daughter Debbie, in future productions.

My guess is that even with all of the art that TS serves up to a director it is still possible to make a pig’s ear of this play. Thankfully Stephen Unwin and his colleagues manufactured a silk purse. Another great evening in the company of Mr Stoppard.