All About Eve at the Noel Coward Theatre review ****

All About Eve

Noel Coward Theatre, 15th March 2019

Bloody West End theatres. The Noel Coward Theatre is by no means the worst offender, and we went early and cheap in terms of booking, which was probably the right strategy, but even this VFM perch was uncomfortable, tight, too hot and with a trek to the bogs which near required a satnav. Still at least the sight-lines were up to snuff, for me, if not so much the SO.

With this story, this cast and this creative team this was never going to fail though even as I occasionally yearned for the comfort of the Lyttleton. If you can’t, or won’t, pay up (£175 for a premium ticket!!) to get along in person then this is definitely worth seeing when it is broadcast live to cinemas on 11th April. It is, even with the back-stage insight and obligatory on-stage video, a surprisingly naturalistic take on the classic Joseph L. Mankiewicz film from 1950. I can see why some of the proper reviews say it is overly focussed on the theme of ageing to the detriment of the other insights into the sourer side of the human condition, and Gillian Anderson wisely reins in her inner Bette Davies, (there is the mighty BD above), as Margo Channing, but this is still a very smart piece of theatre craft where the 2 hour straight through run time never drags.

Highlights? Monica Dolan as Karen Richards. Now Ms Dolan, even if she turned it down to say 30 watts, just can’t help outshining everyone else on stage. Here she is magnificent. In the scenes at the party, captured on live video, when everyone has abandoned the drunk, maudlin Margo, she continues to build her character whilst others are “rhubarbing” – there is no sound in these scenes bit it matters not a whit to our Monica. Or take the scene in the car where Karen reveals how she has betrayed Margo to give Eve her big break. Not entirely convincing in the hands of Celeste Holm in the film but here you feel Karen’s remorse at what she has done, and see in her eyes the consequences that will flow from it. You will most likely have seen Ms Dolan on the telly but if you ever get the chance to see her self penned one-woman play The B*easts, about the sexualisation of modern culture, do not, repeat do not, turn it down.

Who else? Well Rhashan Stone as Lloyd Richards, Karen’s playwright husband who also falls under Eve’s spell, also turns in a winning performance. As does the twinkly-eyed Sheila Reid as Margo’s droll, and jealous, retainer Birdie and a booming Stanley Townsend does ample justice to the critic, and Eve’s eventual Svengali, Addison DeWitt, the part made famous by Oscar winner George Sanders. (I am surprised that the OED definition of the word acerbic doesn’t contain reference to the said Mr DeWitt). Indeed all the supporting actors turn in sparkling performances, Ian Drysdale as Margo’s producer Max Fabian, Julian Ovenden as her boyfriend Bill Sampson, debutant Jessie Mei Li as the vacuous Claudia Caswell, (the part played in the film by another newcomer who went by the stage name of Marilyn Monroe), and even Tsion Habte who plays Phoebe the apparent ingenue who pitches up in Eve’s dressing room at the end to repeat the story. Ms Habte is, of course, Lily James’s understudy as Eve. What price Ivo van Hove gets tempted to play that particular meta-dramatic card and shove her into the limelight.

The set and lighting design of Jan Versweyveld is predictably memorable. Mid- and side-stage panels move up to reveal the back-stage workings, this is, after all a play based on a film about the theatre, in turn based on a play The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr, in turn based on her own short story which she based on the real life experience of actress Elizabeth Bergner. The design allows slick set changes to conjure up Margo’s dressing room in the opening scene where super-fan Eve Harrington first sneaks in and tells her sob story, Margo’s glitzy apartment, front of stage at Aged in Wood, the Stork Club, back-stage at the Shubert Theatre where Eve gets her premiere in Footsteps on the Ceiling, Lloyd’s new play, the awards banquet and finally Eve’s own apartment. There is a sickly pink tinge to much of the design which I shall henceforward imagine is the dominant colour in the film, and which nails the forced grandeur of old-school theatre, set in this grand old-school theatre.

The understated period costumes and the score by PJ Harvey, (finally delivering after a few false starts on other plays recently), with on stage pianist Philip Voyzey, and amplified by Tom Gibbons sound design, complete the ensemble. And this being Ivo van Hove each detail has been thought through and there are some divine moments, not least of which is the, admittedly sledgehammer, video “ageing” of Margo on the projected screen. Of course if one or other, or both, of the leads, were to fall short then so would the whole confection, but Gillian Anderson, with her trademark drawl, is as predictably secure as you might imagine as a tragic heroine despite the bantz and the limpid-exterior-masking-steely-interior of Lily James’s sly Eve is the perfect foil.

So great performances, it looks and sounds spot on and no glaring games played with story or text. But, for me, it doesn’t quite scale the heights of the film. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck famously reined in some of the more excessive characterisation in Mankiewicz’s original script, but there is still a hefty dose of melodrama and the sound of tongue pushing against cheek in many of the lines. No-one comes out well and everyone looks after number one first. There is artifice in life as well as art. Anne Baxter’s Eve is recognisably cut from the same cloth as Bette Davies’s Margo. If anyone of these characters pitched up as plus ones at your party, and I include Karen in that, you would probably be looking to wind things up early. Yes the film is about the primacy of youth and looks for women on stage and screen but the message never subsumes the entertainment. The touch is light and, for good or bad, the creators plainly loved their characters. Ivo van Hove’s version, with all the technical wizardry, is decidedly more serious. Maybe too serious. Network at the NT, even if it did miss out some of my favourite bits, was thrilling theatre that eclipsed the film it was based on. This, like other film adaptations by this creative team, does not.

If I may quote from Billers’s review in the Guardian – “this feels more like a Ingmar Bergman movie than a Mankiewicz satire”. The old boy sums it up perfectly as always, especially since it is Bergman that Mr van Hove is continually drawn to as he seeks out films he can react for theatre. (I imagine, based on his brilliant writing, a couple of interviews, his appearance on University Challenge and the fact that he has been theatre critic for nearly 50 years on the world’s greatest newspaper, that the genial Michael Billington is as far removed from Addison DeWitt as it is possible to be. If this were not true the Tourist may well suffer a kind of total psychic collapse).

Even with these caveats, which frankly any half-interested theatre goer familiar with director and film, might reasonably have seem coming well in advance, this is an event and needs seeing. Next up in London, unless I am very much mistaken, from the van Hove factory, is his take on the Janacek song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared with added recitals, music and meaning, at the Royal Opera House, and then, hot on its heels, The Damned at the Barbican, based on Visconti’s coruscating 1969 film, in collaboration with Comedie Francaise, which sounds like in is slap bang in the core of van Hove’s curriculum.

The Madness of George III at the Nottingham Playhouse review *****

The Madness of George III

Nottingham Playhouse, 13th November 2018

Flushed with success from his visit to Manchester the Tourist hopped on a train across the Peak District to the proud city of Sheffield, (where I see the Theatres will be staging a Rutherford and Sons next year ahead of a version at the NT, and will then attempt to stage The Life of Pi, which should be interesting), and then on to Nottingham.

An interesting exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary – Feminisms, Gender, Resistance – but the main aim of the visit was the Playhouse and The Madness of George III. Now I booked this on the assumption, as with the Death of a Salesman at the Royal Exchange, that this was as near to a sure-fire winner as it was possible to get in theatrical terms. Alan Bennett at his witty best, but armed here with a riveting biographical story, directed by the ebullient new(ish) Artistic Director at the Playhouse, Adam Penford, and with Mark Gatiss in the lead, and Adrian Scarborough as Dr Willis, in a uniformly excellent cast. 

And sure-fire winner it turned out to be. Apparently it has become the biggest box-office hit in the Playhouse’s history. It was screened to millions (I may be exaggerating here) via the NT Live cinema programme and ensured a bunch of critics left their London mansions to deliver a slew of 4* and 5* reviews. The audience on the evening the Tourist attended plainly loved, explicit in the congratulations during the after-show discussions.

I saw the original NT production with Nigel Hawthorne as George back in 1991, the Apollo Theatre revival a few years ago with David Haig at his actorly best, and have seen the film version a fair few times. So you can probably tell I am a bit of a fan. I will assume that, since you are one of the very select band reading this, that you are too, so won’t bore you with plot or historical details. If you don’t I suggest you see the film tout suite. 

So what was so good about this production? Well first off Adam Penford has cut out a handful of scenes. AB’s play is already, like most of his work, structured as a series of very short scenes in multiple locations. This guarantees momentum but, allied with AB’s constant urge not to leave a potential quip on the table (which is why it is a comedy after all), can mean the characters, other than the King, come across as a bit thinly sketched. Cutting scenes out might seem counter-intuitive but it does actually mean we become more focussed on the “tragedy” of the King’s breakdown, and then the jubilation of his apparent recovery. I was also more aware here of the King’s relationship with his retinue. The political machinations, Whig vs Tory, the plotting of the Prince Regent and his faction, took a bit more of a back seat.

George III’s 59 year rule saw not just the Regency crisis, but the “loss” of American, the union of GB and Ireland, wars in Europe and throughout the burgeoning Empire, rivalry with France, the Agricultural Revolution and the accumulation of capital to fuel the Industrial Revolution, a new way to finance the monarchy, constitutional change and scientific advances (which George was keenly interested in when he was on top form). Whilst AB’s play only incidentally touches many of these profound changes it does brilliantly capture the dichotomy between the public and private life of the monarchy and the metaphor of the King’s breakdown mirroring the political struggle catalysed by the American War of Independence. 

The dynamism of the production was also very well served by Robert Jones’s ingenious set. The various locations were smartly rendered with a series of Georgian style duck-egg painted flats, on stage and suspended, which were moved into place with no interruption to the action at all. Richard Howell’s lighting design, Tom Gibbons’ sound and Lizzi Gee’s movement, as well as some blisteringly quick costume changes, all further contributed to the pace and period feel of the production (most memorably at the end of the first half). A theatre set to point up the theatricality which underpins royalty. 

However, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the performance of Mark Gatiss that really made the difference. Adrian Scarborough’s Dr Willis, alarmingly forthright in his proto-psychiatric treatment of the King, (pointing up that he was just a man), in the second half, Debra Gillett’s devoted Queen Charlotte, Louise Jameson’s callous Dr Warren, Nicholas Bishop’s morose Pitt, Amanda Hadingue’s presumptuous Fox and Will Scolding’s nincompoop Prince Regent all caught the eye, but all eyes were on Mr Gatiss. As you might expect the comedy flowed easy for him: but better still was the way he caught the pathos of the king as he was plunged into a mania which he could not control but which he understood. “I am not going out of my mind, my mind is going out of me”. The production also doesn’t hold back from showing the physical pain that was inflicted on him by doctors who didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Mr Gattis’s detailing of the King’s speech, tics, convulsions and agonies is mesmerising. Adam Penford was keen to offer a more sympathetic, and contemporary reading, of the King’s mental illness and to avoid seeing his behaviour solely through the lens of humour. Thanks to Mark Gattis’s performance he certainly succeeded. 

History play, political drama, comedy. tragedy? This production makes the case for all of these in a forthright way. Thank you Nottingham Playhouse. I’ll be back. 

Home I’m Darling at the National Theatre review ***

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Home, I’m Darling

National Theatre Dorfman, 29th August 2018

N.B. Home I’m Darling is transferring to the Duke of York’s Theatre from 26th January 2019 for 11 weeks and then toddles off on tour to Theatre Royal Bath, The Lowry and Theatr Clywd.

Now I have to confess to a slight feeling of disappointment with Home, I’m Darling. Don’t get me wrong. It is a very amusing play, with a fine cast led by Katherine Parkinson, and note-perfect set, costume, lighting and sound designs from Anna Fleischle, Lucy Carter and Tom Gibbons, which, cumulatively makes its points. It’s just that it doesn’t really yield too much in the way of surprises once the initial inversion has played out. It feels like writer Laura Wade, whose work to date has been inspired, notably Posh, had a really good idea and a series of fine scenes in her head, but, in translating them on to the page, some of the fizz seemed to evaporate.

Katherine Parkinson plays Judy, a stay at home housewife, married to Johnny (Richard Harrington), an estate agent. It quickly transpires that they, together, have taken their nostalgic obsession with the 1950s to its logical, (or maybe illogical), conclusion. Their friends Fran (Kathryn Drysdale) and Marcus (Barnaby Kay) share their enthusiasm for the clothes, music and style but not the domestic arrangements, right down to Judy decanting the sugar into 1950s containers and milk into glass bottles. Mum Sylvia, (a trenchant Sian Thomas), who brought up Judy in a commune, finds her daughter’s choice hard to comprehend, this “gingham paradise”. The cast is completed by Alex (Sara Gregory), Johnny’s boss, who Johnny is trying to curry favour with to secure promotion. The set up, with the insertion of an Act 2 flashback, allows Laura Wade to explore all angles of the “debate” about gender roles and choices in contemporary society. What value does that society place on “traditional women’s work”? How to balance “choice” with economic necessity? Who can judge on the choice to stay at home or work? What are the risks in fetishising the past? If this sound like its going to be a dour evening never fear. It is all delivered with the lightest of comic touches as you would expect from this writer and from Tamara Harvey who has directed her work before.

The problem is that having conjured up this admittedly intriguing conceit, and established a sit-com mood, the tone never really wavers, and there are maybe a couple too many plot revolutions jemmied in to cover all the bases, for example when Marcus reveals his true misogynist colours. There are occasions when the play steps out of its self imposed comic straightjacket, when Sylvia delivers an impassioned speech about the sacrifices her generation made to promote feminism in the 1970s and just how materially tougher life was for a child in the 1950s, for example. And Katherine Parkinson, with her ability to convey Judy’s brittle interior nature, (she always sounds the weeniest bit p*ssed to me), shows how she crumples under her own self-imposed contradictions. Having teased out a dramatic explanation for Judy’s decision from her own childhood, the plot seems to go into reverse and the ending is something of a damp squib. We all, the SO, BUD and KCK, came out just a little deflated.

I am thinking maybe I am being a little harsh here, and maybe we were asking too much, but that’s where we came out. There are some priceless lines, (Fran’s “the longest recipe I followed this week was Pierce Film Lid”), and the play will definitely make you think. Given that it has sold out at the NT and, prior to that at Theatr Clywd, and has garnered a slew of 4* reviews, I wouldn’t dream of putting you off but there was just something that held us back. And trust me the 4 of us are usually very easily pleased.

Oedipus at Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg review ****

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Oedipus

Tonneelgroep Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg, 17th May 2018

The Tourist sets off to Amsterdam to see the new version of Oedipus from the mighty Toneelgroep Amsterdam. As well as his first visit to the Concertgebouw and a chance to reacquaint himself with one Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. The Tourist finally blogs as a Tourist.

What was the attraction. Oedipus first. Your man Sophocles could write a drama, no doubt about that, and for me, this, Oedipus the King (Rex or Tyrannus), tops his other oft-performed work, Antigone, (though that is still a cracker of a story). These two plays, in a trilogy, sandwiched Oedipus at Colonus where our unfortunate hero leaves Thebes with his daughters and proceeds to pop his clogs after a lot of philosophical chat.

I hope one day to see an adaption of Sophocles’s version of Electra, (all three Greek tragedians had a pop at this story), and Ajax, the miffed warrior who, surprise, surprise, tops himself. I hope, as has occasionally happened, some clever creative will also see the potential in Philoctetes, (wounded soldier on high horse – metaphorically of course – who doesn’t want to fight again). I gather the least interesting of Sophocles’s seven remaining plays is Women of Trachis.

Anyway, as you almost certainly know, the plot of Oedipus the King is an absolute belter. It’s been hard for any writer to top this, for sheer OTT intensity, ever since 429 BCE. That weirdo Freud even named a theory after it. Unwittingly kill your Dad and marry your Mum. It doesn’t end well.

How to adapt this though is the perennial creative conundrum. Which brings me to the second reason to hop on a train to see this. (Yes it is now possible to take the direct train from London to Amsterdam if not yet the return. Cheap as chips, door to door no longer than a flight. And so much more civilised. The bit from Brussels to Amsterdam was pretty much empty).

Namely director Robert Icke. For those that don’t know, Mr Icke, at just 32 years old, is the wunderkind of British theatre direction, though there are many others who match him in my opinion. He was responsible for the revelatory Almeida Hamlet with Andrew Scott, the recent Mary Stuart, 1984, Uncle Vanya and Mr Burns, all at the same venue, (where he is Associate Director), and The Red Barn at the National Theatre. Not all perfect but in many cases mightily close. Yet, of his work to date, probably the most breathtaking was his Oresteia, which even managed a West End transfer after its Almeida run.

Here he took Aeschylus’s mighty trilogy, dispensed with the chorus, pumped up the back story, gave the Gods a court-room at the end to weigh up Orestes’s guilt, (with a bit of audience participation), and carved out a family revenge drama of startling power, where black and white is mutated into every shade of grey, and where death is viscerally real. His adaptation translates the poetry into something more immediate which any audience can grasp. Greeks doesn’t get any better than this.

So no wonder he was invited into the Toneelgroep party to have a go at Oedipus. And there is a lot that Mr Icke has in common with the masters of TA, Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld. The set of Oedipus is one of the modern, faceless, corporate offices which IvH and JV used so effectively in Kings of War and Roman Tragedies. Though given Mr Icke’s set up for Oedipus, a campaign headquarters on the night of an election result, Hildegard Bechtler’s design could hardly be more appropriate. As it happens Ms Bechtler designed the Hamlet set so she knows the Icke drill. The TA stage in the Stadsschouwburg is wide and deep like the Lyttleton. I reckon you could sit anywhere, (and seats are a bargain €30 or so), and see everything. As well as the set, the use of video (Tal Yarden) and screens, a bit of on-stage eating in a family dinner, the modern, relaxed dress, the sound of Tom Gibbons and the lighting from Natasha Chivers, all echo the TA aesthetic. Mr Icke also borrows freely from his own back catalogue, most noticeably with the giant digital clock counting down on stage, representing the time to the election result, but more importantly the revelation underpinning the prophecy. The domestic interplay, the interior setting, the on-stage suicide of Jocasta though thankfully not Oedipus’s gouging, (here with heels not dress pins, ouch), the bickering over the family dinner, the strategising, all will be familiar to those who have seen Oresteia.

The set-up is brilliant. We see a video of Oedipus talking to the press after the election has closed. He promises to clean up the plague which is debilitating Thebes. Here though the plague is shorthand for the political corruption and economic incompetence of the previous administration. “The country is sick”. He is offering a bright new future. “Yes we can” or “drain the swamp”. Take your pick. He also, on the hoof, commits to investigating, and getting to the truth of, Laius’s murder. Cut to the loyal speechwriter/adviser Creon, played here by Aus Greidanus Jr, having a go at Oedipus for making this risky promise. Tiresias (Hugo Koolschlin) is wheeled in to deliver the prophecy. Our first opportunity to see the nasty side of Hans Kesting’s Oedipus as he angrily dismisses the blind old boy’s “nonsense” and turns on Creon who he reckons wants the job of leader. Marieke Heebink’s Jocasta talks him out of sacking Creon, (no need for a chorus and executions in this scenario!), and we are on to the killing at the cross-roads.

But here Laius (Jocasta’s first hubby) is the victim of a road accident (limos not chariots obvs), and Oedipus starts to piece together his own accident story with the established version, questioning the Chauffeur, played by Bart Slegers. You know the rest …… and if you don’t you should. The way Robert Icke fits his version of the plot to the “original” is artful and ensures that the last third or so of the production is as powerful as it should be.

What Mr Icke also intelligently lays on top is the family dynamic as we see “Mum” Merope (Freida Pittoors), consumed by the agony of watching Oedipus’s unseen “Dad” Polybus dying whilst all Oedipus cares about is the prophecy and, here, his route to power, daughter Antigone (Helene Devos) and sons Polynices (Harm Duco Schut) and Eteocles (Joshua Stradowski). Their is some conflict between the two lads: remember they go on to bring Thebes to its knees by knocking seven bells out of each other. The entourage is rounded out by faithful retainer Corin (Fred Goessens) and assistant Lichas (Violet Braeckman).

The supporting actors are uniformly marvellous but it is Hans Kesting and Marieke Heebink who dominate the stage. Which brings me to the third reason to nip over to Amsterdam to see this. The Tourist considers Hans Kesting to be the best male actor in the world and Marieke Heebink to be the best female actor. They proved it once again here. No fear you see, massive emotional range and immense physicality. No point holding back as the revelations tumble out in Oedipus and, trust me, they don’t. The scene were Jocasta explains how she was abused by Laius, and conspires to smuggle her baby away, is unbearably moving. Love is about the trickiest emotion to capture on stage. These two show exactly how to do it.

So why just 4* and not the 5* that you might expect from this obviously gushing fan of the play, the ensemble and the director. Firstly there is maybe, as I allude to above, a bit of a sense that we have seen this all before. The setting works, how “fate” brings a “good, man” down, and, specifically whether it pays for a politician to be “honest”, but the look and feel is maybe just a bit too close to Mr Icke’s previous work. More importantly the text is maybe a little too direct. Remember I was following a sur-titled English translation of a Dutch adaption by Rob Klinkenberg of the original Greek filtered through numerous prior translations. This presumably makes its literalness even more literal. Helps plot and message but leaves poetry on the table. In TA’s other work I have seen, the Shakespeare for example, this has not been a constraint, the language still shines. In IvH/JW’s Antigone conversely, which came to the Barbican, the translation by Anne Carson was too challenging, though this disappointed more through Juliette Binoche’s miscasting it pains me to say.

Still overall this is a great piece of theatre. If it ever wends its way to London you must see it. Otherwise we have Marieke Heebink as the lead in Simon Stone’s Medea to look forward to next year at the Barbican and Simon McBurney makes his directorial debut at TA at the Staadsschouwburg with a Cherry Orchard. Yum. This creative collaboration, amongst so many other reasons, is why Europe is a good idea. Though I doubt any of the dumb-arses in England who think differently would care.