Tag Archives: Jonathan Slinger

Romp with Pomp

THE PROVOKED WIFE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 5th June, 2019

 

John Vanbrugh’s comedy from 1697 is given an exuberant revival in this new production for the RSC by Phillip Breen.  A prologue points out that the playwright got his inspiration from us, the audience – and this is all we need to remind us that human nature, and in particular, human foibles have not changed a jot.  Breen sensibly keeps everything in and of the period and because of this, the show works admirably.  Mark Bailey’s set is a theatre, with plush crimson drapes and a pelmet, and footlights around three sides of the stage, setting the action against a backdrop of artifice, while the lavish costumes denote both class and character.

Lady Brute (a magnificent Alexandra Gilbreath) seeks distraction from her loveless marriage to Lord Brute (Jonathan Slinger in excellent form) by plotting with her niece Belinda (the charming Natalie Dew) romantic intrigues involving her suitor Constant (Rufus Hound has never been more dashing).  Constant’s best mate, professed woman-hater Heartfree finds himself enamoured of Belinda – in a masterly comic performance from John Hodgkinson, tossing off Vanbrugh’s sardonic epigrams with effortless bitterness.

A big name draw for this splendid company is TV favourite Caroline Quentin as the monstrously vain and conceited Lady Fanciful.  Quentin is made for this kind of stuff, and gives a hugely enjoyable performance.  Hardly subtle, Vanbrugh names his characters to suit their natures – Quentin’s portrayal is far from one-note and is an absolute joy to behold.

Also appearing, but mainly as a supernumerary is veteran comic Les Dennis, cutting his teeth at the RSC.  I’m assuming he has a more featured role in this play’s companion piece in repertory – but more of that anon.

Released from the confines of their gallery, the musicians feature on stage, coming and going to cover transitions and to accompany the songs – Paddy Cunneen’s  original composition, vibrant, sometimes discordant, enhance the period flavour and the comical nature of proceedings.  Rosalind Steele and Toby Webster are in splendid voice as Pipe and Treble respectively.

After much farcical comings-and-goings, including Lord Brute donning a frock and beating up the night’s watch like Old Mother Riley, the action takes a more dramatic turn, and we appreciate the depths of despair and danger Lady Brute endures.  Gilbreath and Slinger flip from wry comic barbs to horribly tense domestic abuse and it’s gripping stuff.  The plot is resolved with a quick succession of gasp-worthy revelations but the Brutes remain together, a bitter note among the hilarity and happiness.

Expertly presented, this production will get you laughing from the off.  It does run a bit long; this bum on a seat was a bit numb on the seat well before the end.  I advise you to get out and stretch your legs during the interval.  It’s a long haul but it’s more than worth it.

"The Provoked Wife" by John Vanbrugh

Behaving badly: Caroline Quentin as Lady Fanciful (Photo: Pete Le May, c RSC)

 

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Taking the Piss

URINETOWN

St James Theatre, London, Thursday 6th March, 2014

 

At long last, Urinetown comes to the UK and, let me tell you, it is well worth the wait.   I could write the shortest review ever and just say: PERFECTION.  Or I could go on and on and write a book about how great this show truly is.  I’ll try to land somewhere between the two.

It is set in a dystopian future where a water shortage means bodily functions are strictly regulated.  Everyone has to pay to use public toilets – going elsewhere is strictly prohibited.  Offenders are caught and exiled to the mysterious Urinetown of the title.  Of course, there’s a greedy corporation manipulating and exploiting the situation with politicians and law enforcers in its pay.  Not unlike coalition Britain, ha ha – but the satire of the show is sharper than mine.

When he meets and falls for the corporation boss’s daughter, Bobby Strong embarks on a revolutionary path to restore dignity and socialism to the world.  But the show is about more than a clash of political ideas.  It’s also about musicals, while being a demonstration in how to write and perform a musical.  There’s a lot of frame-breaking fun going on, poking fun at its own form.  Director Jamie Lloyd capitalises on every such moment but the production never becomes too ‘knowing’ or ‘nudge-wink’.  It’s all carried off with camp charm.

Officer Lockstock is our narrator.  Together with Little Sally, who speaks for the audience, he guides us through the show, like a man trapped in the fourth wall.  RSC stalwart Jonathan Slinger is the bully-boy cop and I don’t think he’s ever been better.  Karis Jack’s Little Sally draws our attention to the absurdity and distastefulness of the subject matter, while conveying the character’s blinking innocence.

As Bobby Strong, Richard Fleeshman is certainly swoonworthy, giving us the hero’s blind determination and idealism.  He has a great voice too.  Rosanna Hyland is love interest Hope, fresh-faced and sweet-voiced, she plays the humour of the part to perfection.  Her father, the evil Caldwell B Cladwell is played with relish by Simon Paisley Day.  Marc Elliott is delightfully twitchy and smarmy as Mr McQueen and Adam Pearce is splendid as Lockstock’s partner-in-crime-fighting, Officer Barrel.  Although if Lockstock put his baton to my head to make me pick a favourite, I’d have to opt for Jenna Russell’s hilarious and cartoonish Penelope Pennywise.

It’s an outstanding cast.  An ensemble of energetic minor characters mean there is always plenty going on; some hysterical bits of business make the show consistently funny.  There is also some darkness along the way.  Transgressors are beaten up and bloodied.  We are reminded that there is a serious message to all of this, and it’s not just that capitalism is wrong and that socialism won’t work.  The show reminds us that our way of life is unsustainable.  Without proper management of the world’s resources, we won’t have a world on which to debate ideals, or indeed a pot to piss in.

On the surface it all seems like silliness but Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann’s show is a remarkable piece of work.  You can see why it won tons of awards on and off Broadway.  The production values of this current incarnation should see some awards winging their way to the St James Theatre or there’s no justice.  Soutra Gilmour’s production design gives us a dank and grimy world of brick walls and tiles, like Victorian toilets and sewers.  Ann Yee’s choreography is quirky and funny, as the score sends up a range of musical styles.  The attention to detail is, like much of the production, breathtaking.

Urinetown is a truly refreshing addition to London’s musical theatre.  Like a long, cool glass of water, it makes you want to go again.

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Pissed off: Richard Fleeshman and Jenna Russell


Well…

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 31st July, 2013

 

Performed less often than some other Shakespeare plays, All’s Well is a ‘comedy’ or a ‘problem play’.  If we take ‘comedy’ to mean a drama in which characters overcome their problems (as opposed to ‘tragedy’ where the problems overcome the characters) then it certainly fits the category.  It remains a problematic play in my view because of its shortcomings: plot devices familiar from other plays are strung together with none of the impact of, say, the fooling of Malvolio, the controversy of the wedding rings in Merchant.

But that is not to say All’s Well is without merit.  There is much to engage and divert and I would argue the two main female roles contain much of the play’s appeal.  As the Countess, Charlotte Cornwell is stately and generous in spirit, in a seemingly effortless performance, grand without being condescending, sensitive and yet somewhat reserved.  Most of the wheels of the plot are put in motion by Helena in an engaging and touching performance by Joanna Horton.  Helena is a fairytale heroine who goes through trial and tribulation and gets what she wants by guile and determination.  When the object of her affection (Bertram) leaves her behind, her heartbreak is heartbreaking.

The key to All’s Well is the fairytale aspect of the story.  The design of this production, by Katrina Lindsay, works best when it alludes to the storybook nature of the plot.  For my tastes, the soldiers in their dress uniform are more fitting than when they appear in desert camouflage and white t-shirts like some kind of stripper troupe.  The ailing King of France (the always excellent Greg Wise) is hooked up to a drip, an oxygen tank and an ECG machine (or whatever it is) – these kinds of touches are at odds with the other-worldliness of the plot’s logic.  Similarly the see-through box which slides on and off to indicate changes of location is unnecessary.  Thankfully, the production is comparatively short on gimmicks, although what there are, jar horribly.

The show begins with a loud assault of music and lighting.  Parolles dances on a table wearing a Leigh Bowery-type gimp mask.  Mercifully, the production calms down with some freeze-frames, snapshots that set the scene for a funeral. Director Nancy Meckler appears to have reined in some of her excesses – where this production works best is when the staging is at its simplest, and the actors are allowed to do their jobs without the production aesthetic getting in the way.  The soldiers remain a bit of a worry as the play goes on.  The second half begins with an ill-advised movement sequence in which they punch invisible enemies.  They go off, leaving Bertram to duff up thin air.  I found it laughable.

Ah, yes, Bertram.  The always watchable and likeable Alex Waldmann has his work cut out to give this romantic anti-hero any kind of redeeming qualities.  He’s physically attractive but condescending, sarcastic and self-serving.  In brief: he’s a prick. Poor Helena must have been dazzled by his charisma.  Right at the end, when he is shamed into accepting their marriage, Bertram’s conversion is tricky to handle.  The lights fade with Helena triumphant, and Bertram close to tears, resigned to his fate.  All has not ended well for him, which I think belies the optimism of the title, the optimism that has kept Helena on course to get what she wants come what may.  I would have preferred some kind of epiphany to fuel his sudden, albeit qualified, declaration.  Within the fairytale context, this kind of transformation is perfectly fitting.

I was also uncomfortable with the handling of Parolles.  Jonathan Slinger gets his nastiness across but there needs to be more to enjoy in his bombast and braggadocio if we are to feel something for him when he sees the error of his ways.  He is tricked into betraying military secrets and insulting his fellow soldiers but the desert storm setting is a little too much like those disgraceful photographs of American soldiers humiliating captives to make the scene anywhere near rip-roaring.  It leaves an unpleasant aftertaste – as does the production as a whole.  If you’re going for bittersweet, you can’t forget to add the sweet.

Alex Waldmann and Charlotte Cornwell

Alex Waldmann and Charlotte Cornwell


They F*** You Up, Your Mum and Uncle

HAMLET

RSC, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 28th March, 2013

 David Farr sets his Elsinore in an old-school school hall.  Wood panelling covers the walls.  Low benches from P.E. lessons and metal-framed stacking chairs.  Upstage, steps lead to a proscenium arch and a platform with some heavy duty chairs and table.  The wooden floor is marked with tramlines and fencing foils hang from the walls.  Fire doors lead off to the exit.  Above the proscenium, rather subtly, is the legend, Mens sans in corpore sano.  There is also a handbell knocking around but it’s the accoutrements of fencing that dominate – the sport rather than the gardening variety.  The masks especially are put to good use (Hamlet’s dad’s ghost wears the full rig-out) and the foils are put to almost constant use.

Hamlet (Jonathan Slinger) appears right at the start, in a black suit, still sobbing over his father’s death and what has followed.  With that suit and his specs, he looks like Philip Larkin.  But rather than a provincial librarian turned poet, Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg University – a mature student, it would appear.  We are in the early 1960s, judging from Jon Bausor’s designs – Ophelia (Pippa Nixon) in skirt, tights and sensible shoes is either a student or teacher, or perhaps a student teacher, shedding an armful of exercise books to throw herself into a passionate embrace with Philip Larkin, sorry, Prince Hamlet.  Horatio sports a jacket with leather patches at his elbows.  Laertes wears a polo neck.  This is the era before hair got really long and clothes became really colourful.

It’s a dingy Denmark, traditional and staid. But as we know, there is something rotten in the state.  The problem with Hamlet, I find, is it’s too familiar.  Almost every line is a famous quote.  It’s like Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits or even the English Language’s Greatest Hits.  So much of the play has entered common usage, it takes an excellent production to make the lines sound fresh and new and current within the context of the production.  This one does that, but patchily.  I suppose if this is your first Hamlet it’s a strong one but a long one to begin with.

Slinger doesn’t look like a Hamlet but he sounds like one and can drive a good soliloquy.  He has an impressive range of sarcastic gestures and mockery, and his energy never flags in a performance of contrasts and colours, mood swings and madness.  At one point he enters singing Ken Dodd’s Happiness but sadly without the tickling stick.  In scenes with his mother (Charlotte Cornwell) his petulant, rather teenage protestations are perhaps the greatest stretch of credibility, but on the whole this melancholy prince gives an impressive turn.  If you disregard the fact that he’s breaking most of the instructions he gives to the Players when they arrive.  Like his half-on and half-off fencing armour, the part doesn’t quite fit him, try as he might.

Nixon is a striking Ophelia, abused by Hamlet: he strips her down to vest and tights as if she’s forgotten her PE kit – and by the director: she has to lie dead in the dirt downstage centre for the final scenes while all around her is action and murder.  Horatio (Alex Waldmann – now there’s a Hamlet I would like to see) is a beatnik intellectual but no less genuine in his affection for his royal friend.  Greg Wise doubles as Claudius and the brother he murdered; his Ghost of Hamlet’s Dad is eerie and moving, while his murderous Claudius keeps a tight rein on himself until he’s alone and at prayer.  It was a special treat for this Rock Follies fan to see Charlotte Cornwell as an elegant Gertrude, looking fabulous in couture but also powerful as the woman who has unwittingly participated in her own and everyone else’s downfall.

I adored Robin Soans’s prissy and self-important Polonius and was sorry to see him stabbed behind the arras (ouch!) and as his son, Laertes, Luke Norris cuts a dashing figure.  His final confrontation with Hamlet doesn’t look like a fair fight, and indeed, it isn’t.

It’s well worth seeing but it’s more of a “Let’s see how they do this bit” kind of show rather than an engaging presentation of tragedy.  I didn’t get beyond regarding the actors as actors, or appreciating the technical aspects of the production, rather than being moved by the characters.

Larkin about

Larkin about (Photo by Keith Pattison)


Imperfect Storm

THE TEMPEST
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 11th September, 2012

One of the things I’ve always liked about The Tempest is that it seems to start in the middle of the story. The titular storm that brings a particular group of people to a particular island is the turning point in their fate, as the wronged and usurped Prospero exerts his influence on the natural world. This means the opening scenes are heavy with back-story, but it’s all about setting things up before the final confrontation and moment of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Like the bear in The Winter’s Tale, how the opening scene will be staged is always eagerly anticipated. David Farr’s production, part of the RSC’s ‘shipwreck trilogy’ uses the same diagonal planks, the decking of a ship, to fill the performance space (and indeed the same cast) as Twelfth Night and the Comedy of Errors. Prospero’s isle is rather drab and monochromatic. His ‘cell’ is a Perspex box and it is in here that the tempest happens. Sitting at her schooldesk, Miranda (Emily Taafe) listens with growing fascination to the voices of the passengers and crew while behind her, in the Perspex box of her imagination, we see the scene played out within those cramped confines. It’s a neat idea but hardly spectacular.

The Perspex box has things in common with the TARDIS – it can transport characters – and the holodeck on the USS Enterprise – it can show things – but I couldn’t help thinking of Philip Schofield’s game show. Can you beat The Cube?

Prospero (Jonathan Slinger) stalks around in a stained suit and buttoned-up shirt. And so does his spirit slave Ariel (Sandy Grierson in a hypnotic performance) – a kind of Mini Me, who happens to be taller than the original. I liked this identification of slave and master and of course, off comes the jacket at the end when Ariel is awarded his freedom at last. Trouble is, I could neither warm to this Prospero nor marvel at his powers. There is something about Slinger’s characterisation that prevents this. Technically he is an excellent actor but I just wasn’t getting it.

Caliban (Amer Hlehel) wears a suit that is little more than a collection of tatters. A dust cloud arises whenever he moves and he has an enjoyable manner of cursing and swearing. His supposed ‘misshapenness’ is nothing other than his different ethnicity, bringing to the fore the play’s themes of imperialism and colonialism. Caliban is quite right to be aggrieved, in modern eyes, but perhaps to the Jacobean viewer, he would come across as the ungrateful savage. Why is his usurpation acceptable but not Prospero’s? (I’m loving the chance to say ‘usurpation’ and I may well do so again before this review is finished).

Solomon Israel’s Ferdinand brings the first note of physical humour to the play. His arrival is a breath of fresh air and his interactions with Taafe’s Miranda are delightful. When he is enchained by Prospero, the slavery theme is starkly with us – I don’t think this was an unconscious side effect of the ‘colour-blind’ approach to casting.

The always-enjoyable Felix Hayes gives an endearingly dim Trinculo and Bruce Mackinnon’s Stephano gives a drunken satire of the imperialist. Their scenes with Hlehel’s Caliban liven up this production.

The second half has more oomph. At last we see Prospero calling up the special effects department to do his bidding. We get flashes and bangs and dry ice and bubbles. The isle has become a magical place at last. As Prospero realises that forgiveness is his best option, he becomes less the stern plantation owner and nasty schoolteacher and more the sentimental father and big-hearted brother, accessing all parts of his humanity and choosing tbe better ones. Slinger wins you over by the end.

I liked Nicholas Day’s dignified Gonzalo but I don’t see why Sebastian (Kirsty Bushell) was made a female character but referred to as male most of the time. Her Sebastian is sardonic and cool, a counterpoint to the blustering of the rest of the party.

There are some great touches: I liked Caliban carrying firewood like Christ bearing the cross, and the Caravaggioesque freezes when Sebastian and Antonio are about to carry out their violent usurpation (there you go) of Alonso.

Perhaps it’s my fault for wanting more enchantment but, like drying out after a downpour, I came to like this production a lot by the end and found it ultimately moving.


The Love Boat

TWELFTH NIGHT
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd March, 2012

This season the RSC present three of Will’s plays linked under the theme of shipwreck. The other two are The Tempest and The Comedy of Errors – the latter has more in common with Twelfth Night. In both, twins are separated by maritime disaster leading to confusion, mistaken identity and high jinks aplenty.

This production begins not with the famous opening line (If music be the food of love, play on) but with Viola clambering onto the stage from a downstage water tank and asking, “What country, friend, is this?” This brief moment serves to “brand” the show as part of this trilogy and seems to me a tenuous way to compile a season.

When we meet Duke Orsino (Jonathan McGuinness ) he is not the lovesick, self-indulgent in his suffering, egoist. Rather he is a shouty, angry young man, who seems to equate the loudness of his voice with the depth of his professed love for the lady Olivia. I couldn’t take to him. And I couldn’t see what Viola sees in him. It is a discordant note in a production that gets many things right.

The set is a shipwreck. The lounge deck, with grand piano, chandelier, faded upholstery and a reception desk in the corner. Characters come and go dressed like holiday makers in the 1990s. Viola adopts a blue jacket with shoulder pads and turquoise trousers in order to disguise herself as manservant Cesario. She looks like Tintin dressed as Don Johnson off of Miami Vice.

Toby Belch (Nicholas Day) totters drunkenly across the uneven floorboards in Hawaiian shirt and loafers. He is a likable sot but upstaged at every turn by Bruce MacKinnon as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Think Jedward’s elder brother with his finger in a plug socket for his hairdo. Think Rik Mayall in his early days for a hint of the performance style. MacKinnon wrings pathos out of the role as well as showing us what a complete arse Sir Andrew is. At one moment, he drops from the edge of the stage and into the water in order to escape trouble. Several members of the audience received a drenching. The range of their reactions added to my enjoyment of the scene!

As Malvolio, Jonathan Slinger proves he is an accomplished comic performer. His puritanical steward sports a toupee and a gleaming name tag as his badge of office. It is a very tight characterisation and when the action requires more physicality to the comedy, Slinger keeps it credible but still very funny. His exit, up a staircase, while cross-gartered in yellow stockings and his arse hanging out of a thong got the biggest laugh of the night. His final appearance, abused and ridiculed, shows the depth of his feeling. He is not going to laugh it off, take the joke and make peace. He swears he’ll be revenged on the whole pack, and his look takes in the entire auditorium. Not everyone in this rom-com is going to wind up with a happy ending.

And that’s part of the genius of this piece. The whole play is riddled with melancholic moments, most notably within the songs. Feste (usually a jester but here a lounge musician – Kevin McMonagle – practically busking for change) performs several tunes with modern arrangements but the nature of Shakespeare’s lyrics foreshadows the preoccupations of the emos of today. The play is bitter-sweet. The production suggests shipwreck as a metaphor for the affect love has on us. Some have their hopes dashed; others are salvaged and restored to life.

I liked plucky Viola (Emily Taafe) and I felt Kirsty Bushell portrayed Olivia’s arc very well, from languishing in mourning her dead brother to being reawakened to the possibilities of love and life. Best of the crop though were Bruce MacKinnon and Cecilia Noble (as scheming maid Maria). There is much to enjoy in this production but you’re more likely to come out of the theatre with a wistful sigh than a ribcage aching from laughter.


Spit happens.

MACBETH
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Monday 18th July, 2011

The set for this production – one of the first to be staged in the revamped and rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre – is basically the interior of a ruined church. Smashed stained glass windows and beheaded statues stand as sentinels for the action on the dark parquet flooring below. A pile of rubble, broken chairs and statues clutters the upstage area. This is, of course, in keeping with the desecration theme of the play: when Duncan’s murdered body is found, he is likened to a ransacked temple, the incarnation of the natural, and holy, order. Someone has ‘stole thence the life o’ th’ building’.
The regicide causes great perturbation in nature. The unnatural (and God-given) order has been defiled. Even the horses are eating each other. The evil must be purged so that order – symbolised by brand spanking new stained glass windows – can be restored.

The production has many nifty ideas. The witches have been swapped for a trio of undead children, whose entrance to the play is one of the most chilling I have ever seen. The famous opening scene is dispensed with. Instead, a concussed Malcolm becomes the ‘bloody man’ who acts as war correspondent, and is prompted to begin speaking by Ross, in priestly garb. This device closes the play, with Ross again prompting new king Malcolm to deliver the final speech. In this way, Ross can be seen to operate as a counterpart for Seyton (who is also given the Porter’s gates of hell speech). Seyton, in dark red leather, oversees the action but only after the first murder has been committed. By killing the king, Macbeth has unleashed Evil upon the world – well, upon Scotland, at least.
The slaughter of Lady Macduff and her ‘pretty chickens’ is truly horrific. She has to watch as one child is stabbed, another has his neck broken – the girl is led off hand in hand with her assailant for some unseen, unspeakable atrocity.
Once dead, characters are ushered through a door upstage centre by Seyton himself. This is not the primrose way! But it is a good method of clearing the stage of corpses.
Rather than witches, it is ghosts who loom large, influencing the action. Macduff followed around by his dead wife and kids is particularly effective. Dolls figure heavily, representing childhood and also puppetry, in a Voodoo kind of way. Macbeth, scorning the predictions, seizes one of the dollies and repeatedly thwacks its face off the floor, echoing his wife’s earlier claim to “dash a child’s brains out.” This, and some other bits of business, gave rise to laughter from the audience. Jonathan Slinger’s worthy Thane brings to light some of the black humour of the later scenes but I’m not confident all the laughs were earned intentionally.
What irked me and alienated me from the central performance was his propensity for emitting great sprays of saliva with every other word. I know proper voice projection inevitably creates this side effect but Mr Slinger seems to me a veritable fountain of a man. I recall with a shudder getting drenched at his Richard III, when I was on the second row. All of this kept me at a dry distance from his performance – a pity when so many of the supporting players were so strong.

Ah well, spit happens.