Tag Archives: Christopher Hampton

Canvas Opinions

ART

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 21st May, 2018

 

When Serge splashes out 200 grand on a white painting, it becomes a bone of contention and causes a rift between him and his two best friends, Marc and Yvan.  Or rather, it brings to the surface, resentments and feelings hitherto buried, and the 25-year friendship is in danger of exploding.  This welcome revival of Matthew Warchus’s Old Vic production reminds us of how funny Yazmina Reza’s script is, through the prism of Christopher Hampton’s excellent translation.  And so, these three middle-aged Frenchmen and their triangular association becomes a searing statement about the nature of friendship, more than a commentary on contemporary art.

Nigel Havers has never been better, in my view, than he is here as the urbane but uptight Serge.  He is matched by a magnificent Denis Lawson as the scathing, cynical Marc, and an absolutely brilliant Stephen Tompkinson as the emotional, put-upon Yvan.  Tompkinson gets to deliver a lengthy monologue about wedding invitations that is as hilarious as it is long.  In fact, the comic timing of all three is impeccable and it is a joy to see these old hands, excelling at their craft.

Mark Thompson’s sparse but stately set serves as the friends’ apartments, suggesting also a gallery space with its bare walls and low furniture, while Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, with its shadows of a Venetian blind, suggests the supposed surface of Serge’s precious painting.  Snappy asides from the characters are demarcated by sharp lighting changes, accompanied by the jazz-informed tones of Gary Yershon’s ultra-cool music.

It’s a breath-taking hour and a half, of bitter backbiting and savage rejoinders.  An act of selflessness on the part of Serge salvages the trio – they will live to squabble another day – and furthermore, Marc is brought to his own understanding of what the painting signifies.

Like an actor on a stage, the painter covering a canvas is transient.  Serge’s white canvas reminds us we are all figures moving through a space, and then we are gone.  It’s a real punch in the gut from a show that has already made our sides ache with laughter.

Superb.

ART 2

Picture this: Stephen Tompkinson, Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson (Photo: Matt Crockett)

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Boulevard of Broken Dreams

SUNSET BOULEVARD

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 14th November, 2017

 

Andrew Lloyd Webber has written loads of musicals.  This is one of the good ones.  Based on the film of the same name, this is the story of deluded silent-movie star Norma Desmond, yearning for a comeback (or ‘return’ as she calls it) and her relationship with opportunistic, down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis.  It’s a movie biz musical with more than a touch of noir.  Lloyd Webber’s score has moments of sweeping, cinematic lushness and the lyrics, by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, have wry wit.  But we have to wait a while for the first banging tune to come along – when Norma makes her first entrance, ‘With One Look’.   The opening sequence is just recitative – there is a lot of it throughout the show, with characters singing their dialogue to the same repeated musical phrase.  I’d dispense with it and just have the songs proper.  But that’s me.

As the posturing diva in her sunset years, Ria Jones is magnificent, stalking and strutting around melodramatically and with a belter of a voice.  There is real star quality here, beyond Norma’s domineering persona, I mean.  Selfish, deluded, vulnerable and manipulative, Norma is a nightmare, but a dream of a role for Jones.  Perfection.

As writer-turned-gigolo Joe is Hollyoaks heart-throb Danny Mac, establishing his leading man credentials with a winning performance.  He has a strong and pleasant singing voice – to match his physique! – and brings an amiable quality to this anti-hero.

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Danny Mac 'Joe Gillis'. Photo by Manuel Harlan (2)

No ordinary Joe: Danny Mac (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Thirdly, but by no means least, there is a towering performance from Adam Pearce as Norma’s butler, Max, with a voice that is deep and rich and expressive.  Thoroughly convincing.

Molly Lynch sings sweetly as Joe’s love interest Betty Schaeffer, and there is vibrant support from a chorus who represent the bustling world of the studio lot in a range of guises.

Director Nikolai Foster utilises elements of a film set to tell the story, with projections and spotlights, and stage hands pushing scenery around.  This is a nifty way to include moments like a car journey or a plunge in a swimming pool that is in keeping with the Hollywood setting.  Foster lets the black humour of the piece come through – we are both endeared to and horrified by Norma.  The final staircase speech is dark, funny and heart-breaking.

An engaging look at what happens when the famous no longer have fame, how the rich seek to control, how destructive one-sided relationships can be… There is so much in it.  Above all, it’s an excellent production of a grown-up musical, with a handful of great tunes and memorable performances from the central players.

Sunset Boulevard is right up my street.

SUNSET BOULEVARD. Ria Jones 'Norma Desmond'. Photo Manuel Harlan (4)

Viva la diva! Ria Jones as Norma Desmond (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 


Rattled Cages

GOD OF CARNAGE

Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 6th May, 2016

 

One young boy has knocked out a couple of teeth of another boy.  Their parents meet to discuss what is to be done.  It all begins in civilised fashion: they are agreeing the wording of a definitive statement of events.  Soon, however, as blame is hurled from one side to the other, the thin veneer of civilisation begins to crack and peel away.

Yasmina Reza’s black comedy of manners, played here in a sharp translation by Christopher Hampton, makes acute observations about the human condition – the middle-class human, that is.  One of the fathers, Michael, has tipped the family hamster out onto the road.  It’s not a wild animal or a domesticated animal, he observes.  This incident is a metaphor for the entire piece.  Out of their cages of etiquette and civility, the characters flounder.  They turn on each other but their attacks are as effectual as an assault by hamster – I imagine; I’ve never crossed one’s path.  There is always something enjoyable about seeing people behaving badly, in ways we would never dare to in our real lives.

As Michael, Roger Ganner brings Black Country bathos, forever undermining the pretensions of his wife Veronica (Penny Sandle-Keynes) whose African masks and artefacts adorn the set – clues to the primitive tribalism we are about to witness.  This powwow of chieftains is not going to be fruitful.  Tony Homer’s Alan, apparently surgically welded to his mobile phone, emits waves of cynicism effortlessly, while his brittle wife Annette (Ruth Linnett) does a marvellous turn in falling ill and getting pissed.  In short, this quartet delivers an excellent performance of well-defined characters, whose excesses are within keeping of their established tropes, and the contrasting moments of action are adeptly orchestrated by director Colin Lewis Edwards, staging a mini-Lord of the Flies meltdown in Bel Derrington’s detailed but not cluttered set.

We only care about ourselves, opines Alan – between phone calls.  Reza holds up this attitude to ridicule.  If we only care about ourselves, we are no better than selfish, squabbling children.  Like the unfortunate hamster, we need our cages for our own protection, whether those cages are good manners, convention, or indeed technology like Alan’s ever-ringing mobile.

A bleak view of society but a darkly entertaining and thought-provoking piece of theatre, tightly played by an excellent cast.  I enjoyed every wince-inducing minute.

God-of-Carnage-Bear-Pit-Theatre-Landscape-999x450


Who’s The Daddy?

THE FATHER

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd May, 2016

 

Florian Zeller’s hit play comes to Brum in this sharp translation by Christopher Hampton.  It begins as a seemingly naturalistic portrayal of forgetful old man Andre (Kenneth Cranham) being visited by his daughter Anne (Amanda Drew).  But then, disjoints appear.  Contradictions arise.  Who is the man who appears?  Anne’s husband?  Someone else?  And that woman?  Is she a new nurse?  Or Andre’s other daughter?  Lines of dialogue repeat and reoccur in different scenes.  Meanwhile, subtly, the set is becoming barer – items of furniture, and Andre’s possessions, are disappearing, as his mind submits to encroaching dementia.  The transitions add to the sense of confusion, plunging us into blackouts while disrupted music blares.  Like Andre, we very soon don’t know who is who and what’s going on.

Of course, it’s only a glimpse into what it might be like to experience Andre’s confusion, terror and grief.  As audience, we can piece together what is happening in a way that the ailing Andre cannot.  It leads us to a devastating, heart-breaking final scene, powerfully played by Cranham, who is utterly convincing as the good-natured charmer, trying to keep his grip and fearing what is happening to him.  A stunning portrayal.

He is supported by a striking cast, who show us the effects of dementia on others and also the sometimes shocking treatment of sufferers.  Amanda Drew delivers a monologue about strangling her father, to give them both some sense of peace.  It is emotive stuff, to be sure, but there is humour, due to the surviving remnants of Andre’s fading personality.

Director James Macdonald keeps us on our toes as we try to sift through the changing situations and Andre’s deterioration – sometimes the scenes are very short and we are soon plunging into darkness again.  Miriam Buether’s design – Andre’s increasingly impersonal surroundings – and Guy Hoare’s cool (in the sense of cold) lighting add to the starkness.

Gripping, moving and, ultimately, bleak, The Father could well be the most powerful piece of theatre to be seen this year.

2_Kenneth Cranham in The Father_c Simon Annand

Pyjamas but no party: Kenneth Cranham (Photo: Simon Annand)