Tag Archives: Giles Taylor

Marley and E

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th December, 2017

 

Do we need yet another version of Charles Dickens’s perennial classic?  The RSC and playwright David Edgar think we do, but what can they bring to this well-worn table?  Is there anything fresh to be said?

Yes, quite a bit, as it turns out.

Edgar frames his adaptation around a conversation between Dickens (Nicholas Bishop) and his editor (Beruce Khan).  The latter tries to persuade the former to dress up his social justice tract as a story, because stories are more powerful than facts and figures.  On the spot, Dickens conjures characters and scenes to life, and Bishop and Khan become our narrators as the familiar (to us) story unfolds.  There are some lovely moments of interplay between creator and created as Dickens prompts his characters, they ask what they should do, and especially when the Doctor’s Boy (Luca Saraceni-Gunner) has to run on three times in quick succession.  This approach heightens the storytelling aspect of the play.

Edgar also highlights Dickens’s social conscience by interpolating statistics and vox pops regarding child exploitation and poverty in Birmingham, Edgar’s home town and just up the road from Stratford.  This hammers home the message of the story, and it runs contrary to everything our present government stands for.  On the one hand, it’s startling to see how relevant the story remains; on the other, it’s depressing to realise, what progress we made post-WWII is being reversed.  Workhouses can’t be far away.

Leading the cast is Phil Davis as a magnificent Ebenezer Scrooge.  Davis has an intensity to his meanness and spite – but that intensity doesn’t dim when Scrooge sees the light.  This Scrooge is well-Brexit, despising the poor, spouting racist bile, but if he can be rehabilitated, surely the country’s descent into bitter isolationism can be reversed?  The production gives me hope.

Among an excellent ensemble, I enjoy Joseph Prowen as nephew Fred, who manages to be pleasant and fair without being soppy, and Giles Taylor’s chummy ghost of Jacob Marley.  John Hodgkinson’s benevolent but ailing employer Mr Fezziwig represents the loss of workers’ rights (keenly sought by the Tories of today) – if you think I’m stretching the present-day comparisons, consider the names Edgar gives to some of the minor characters: Snapchat, Tinder and Uber.

But do not fear: the political aspects in no way overshadow the entertainment value of the piece.  There is a lot of fun here and much to enjoy, from Catherine Jayes’s original music, to Natasha Ward’s detailed costumes.  Director Rachel Kavanaugh combines sophistication (the special effects – I especially like the face in the smoke) with simplicity (the extra-slow motion exit of Fezziwig’s party guests, for example) to give us a production that hits a lot of high notes and, I hope, strikes a chord.  The world won’t stop turning, we are reminded, if the rich have a little less and the poor have a little more.

To return to my original question: do we need yet another version of the story?  Yes.  Yes, we do.  More than bloody ever.

A-Christmas-Carol-production-photos_-2017_2017_Photo-by-Manuel-Harlan-_c_-RSC_236186

E’s a Scrooge, E’s a Scrooge, he’s Ebenezer Scrooge – Phil Davis (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

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History Tomorrow

KING CHARLES III

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 8th September, 2015

 

Mike Bartlett’s hit play turns out to be something of a modern masterpiece.  It’s a Shakespearean history play set in a not-too-distant future and begins with some funereal choral singing by the candlelit cast, a requiem for the late Queen Elizabeth II (a beautifully atmospheric composition by Jocelyn Pook).   There is an additional frisson seeing the play on the eve of Her Maj’s breaking of the record for the longest reign in British history.

The Queen is dead, boys, and Charles succeeds.  The action covers the period between succession and coronation and it soon emerges that Charles will not settle for being a figurehead, rubberstamping legislation willy-nilly.  His refusal to sign off a law restricting the freedom of the press triggers a constitutional crisis, the dissolution of Parliament and riots in the streets.  Prince William, egged on by a Lady Macbeth-like Kate, puts himself forward in a bloodless coup, seeking to take the crown for himself ahead of time.

In fact, blood is the only thing missing from this history.  Bartlett gives us a lot of fun with blank verse (where mentions of Sainsburys and Wetherspoons add bathos and seem anachronistic); rhyming couplets end scenes and there is even a ghostly Diana stalking across the stage, intoning cryptic prophecy.

It’s a very funny piece, peppered with satirical barbs (the script is updated constantly to keep it topical) but in the end it is a tragedy on the grand scale, where the main character’s fatal flaw is his conscience.

As the new king, Robert Powell is magnificent, stately and regal and also human.  The iambic pentameter of the verse drips off him – It is important to note the cast do not do impressions of their real-life counterparts.  They are personages in a drama, a game of thrones, rather than caricatures – although there are plenty of references to make them recognisable to the people we know and lampoon today.

Penelope Beaumont brings dignity to the role of Camilla, here a kind of advisor and voice of reason, while Jennifer Bryden is deliciously Machiavellian as the scheming Kate, urging husband William (Ben Righton managing to look dashing in a comfy pullover) to man up and step up.  Charles is pretty damning of the Wills-and-Kate effect, their empty, plastic, tabloid popularity.  Monarchy without meaning is very much the thrust of the drama.

Richard Glaves is fun as hedonistic Harry, slumming it in nightclubs and late-night supermarkets, until the pull of duty and the status quo yanks him back into line.  The play questions the role of monarchy in a supposedly democratic, egalitarian society.  Evans, the somewhat Cromwellian Labour PM, speaks passionately and reasonably (a forceful Tim Treloar) while Stevens, leader of the Tory opposition (an excellent Giles Taylor), behaves exactly as we expect politicians to carry on.  Evans seems almost too principled and too good to be true in comparison!

There is strong support from Lucy Phelps as Jess, Harry’s proletarian girlfriend, and Dominic Jephcott as James Reiss, both on contrasting ends of the social scale.

Directors Rupert Goold and Whitney Mosery give the piece the gravitas necessary for us to take the play seriously.  What could have been just an amusing skit and an intriguing conceit becomes a thought-provoking and relevant night at the theatre, powerful, entertaining, enlightening, and ultimately moving.

Robert Powell, Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as Charles, Wills and Kate.  (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Robert Powell, Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as Charles, Wills and Kate. (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)