Tag Archives: London

Flooded with Meaning

ROSMERSHOLM

Duke of York’s Theatre, London, Saturday 13th July, 2019

 

Duncan Macmillan’s new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1886 play is flooded with pertinence.  Never mind nineteenth century Norway, many of the lines come across as direct commentary on the state of our nation today, eliciting wry laughter from the audience.  Ibsen-Macmillan make satirical quips, mainly through the mouthpiece of Kroll, a conservative, while sending up that character too.  The public, we are told, vote for feelings not for facts – which accounts for the current mess we’re mired in.

As with all Ibsen, it’s the characters’ personal problems that bring about their downfall.  Dark events in their past always surface and take their toll.  In this one, it’s a year since the suicide (by drowning) of John Rosmer’s wife.  Rae Smith’s elegant, stately set bears the marks of flood damage caused by her body clogging the watermill, the stains as much as a spectre as the memory of the act itself.  Proceedings are beautifully lit by Neil Austin, with daylight starkly streaming through the windows, and lamplight dimly glowing on the murky ancestral portraits that glare down on events.

Tom Burke strikes a plaintive note as widower John Rosmer.  Having lost his faith, he is torn between opposing factions in the upcoming general election, both of which see his pastorhood (if that’s a word) as a vindication of their stance… Burke shows strength in his grief, even if his Hamlet-like indecisiveness causes him to waiver and dither.  Rosmer is clearly in the thrall of his late wife’s best mate and erstwhile nurse, Rebecca West, a thoroughly modern young woman, clawing her way up from nothing and asserting both her independence and her will.  As Rebecca, Hayley Atwell is a Marvel (pun intended).  The former Agent Carter from the Captain America films gives a sparky performance – we like her immediately, and when the Truth comes to light, and she makes impassioned defences of her questionable actions, we admire her, even if we don’t agree with her.  It’s easy to see how Rosmer is enchanted.

Giles Terera is nothing short of superb as sardonic Governor Kroll.  Assured to the point of smarminess, he makes witty observations that mask his ruthlessness and objectionable politics.  There is sterling support from Lucy Briers as housekeeper Mrs Helseth, and Peter Wight puts in a memorable turn as bedraggled radical Ulrik Brendel, more like a homeless Michael Foot than a Jeremy Corbyn.  Finally, Jake Fairdbrother’s tabloid newspaper editor Peter Mortensgaard makes a brief but effective appearance.  The play has no love for newspaper owners nor those who believe what they read in the papers – again, the prescience of the piece is uncanny.  Or perhaps it’s just dismaying to note that society has not moved on in a century, people have not improved – and it’s the same the whole world over.

A stunning production with more laughs than you might expect, culminating in personal tragedy, the net having tightened around the characters until they feel they have no other option.  The final moment is brilliantly realised.  Perhaps director Ian Rickson is also addressing global issues here.  Unless we radically change our ways, we will very soon find ourselves in deep water.

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Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke (Photo: Johan Persson)

 

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Oh Brother

TRUE WEST

Vaudeville Theatre, London, Thursday 6th December, 2018

 

I can’t be the first to not the similarities between the work of American playwright Sam Shepard and our own Harold Pinter.  This revival of Shepard’s 1980 piece is a case in point.  There is a sense of menace coursing through the comedy, the huge chunks of characters’ lives that are unexplained, the sudden outbreaks of violence…

Matthew Dunster’s production comes with stellar casting, with King of the North Kit Harington as screenwriter Austin, and Johnny Flynn as his lowlife brother Lee.  Austin is bookish and settled into a conventional lifestyle (wife, kids…) but his work has brought him to the seclusion of his mother’s house.  His writing is interrupted by the appearance of his brother, unseen for five years and fresh (if that’s the word) from a three-month stint in the desert.  Lee is a burglar, a wastrel with anger management issues – Flynn is powerful in the frequent outbursts, and also swaggering and overbearing in this domineering role.  But Harington is not overshadowed and when, through reasons of plot, the roles are reversed, his Austin comes out of his neurotic shell, rolls around drunk, and acquires an impressive collection of toasters from homes around the neighbourhood.

Donald Sage Mackay appears as Saul, Austin’s producer, an equable counterpoint to the volatility of the brothers’ relationship, while Madeleine Potter’s absentee mother makes a brief but telling appearance in the final scene.  She seems spaced-out, an ineffectual presence – the fate of women in the American mythos.  There is a sense of disconnect here, with what is unsaid looming large – Pinter again!

Jon Bausor’s set with its exaggerated perspective shows a world askew, the angles adding to the claustrophobia.  Director Matthew Dunster brings out the humour of Shepard’s script, balanced with the savagery of the brothers.  They are koi carp trapped in the same tank.  It is with a growing sense of irony that we realise what they do not: they are the idiots chasing each other around in Lee’s terrible idea for a screenplay.  Like Tom and Jerry (the domestic violence has a cartoonish feel) they can’t leave each other alone.

That they are screenwriters is hugely pertinent.  They are both seeking to perpetuate the myths that permeate American culture: Austin’s love story, Lee’s action-packed dumb chase movie.  But when it comes down to it, we find the prescribed modes of masculine behaviour make it impossible for the brothers to function in the real world.

The show is a hot property with hot actors and heated dialogue, with searingly hilarious moments, but when it’s all said and done, and the crickets have finally shut the hell up, the lack of resolution leaves us hanging.  And this is exactly why the star of the show is Sam Shepard’s script, reminding us that life, unlike stories, is unresolved and unexplained.  Meaning is not always apparent.  Perhaps we are all in the desert, chasing each other around.

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The truth ain’t out there, bro. Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn (Photo: Marc Brenner)

 

 

 


Poldarker

THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE

Noel Coward Theatre, London, Saturday 14th July, 2018

 

This revival of Martin McDonagh’s 1993 play is a showcase for the Oscar-winning writer’s talent and also for leading man Aidan Turner – Ross Poldark himself.  Fans of Poldark flocking to the Noel Coward theatre to be in the presence of the handsome hunk will find very different fare on offer.  The setting is a rustic dwelling (hardly Nampara) in the Irish countryside – instead of Cornish vistas, there is a stylised representation of greenery, a tree that seems almost topographical, painted on a curtain.  Rivalries, betrayals, violence… All of these are heightened for comic effect, and this is a very funny play indeed.  Less Poldark and more Quentin Tarantino does Father Ted or Sam Peckinpah tackling Mrs Brown’s Boys.  The humour is blacker than a pint of Guinness.

The killing of a cat is the trigger for the action.  The puss in question belongs to wild-eyed Padraic (Turner) a freedom-fighter and vigilante, who interrupts his torture of a hapless drug pusher (Brian Martin) to receive news of ‘Wee Thomas’s’ welfare – and it is in these moments we see the character in all his madness, from his matter-of-fact sadism to the sentimental depth of his attachment to his only friend.  Turner is screamingly funny, and while his bloodied white singlet shows off his well-turned arms and shoulders, the character is much to monstrous to be attractive and swoon-worthy.  Turner has a credible intensity to his fanaticism; volatile and yet pragmatic, his Padraic is as scary as he is funny.

The rest of the cast are equally good.  McDonagh doles out the funny lines even-handedly, and each character is touched with a particular madness of his or her own.  Padraic’s dad, Donny (Denis Conway) to whom the care of the cat is entrusted while Padraic is off trying to bomb chip shops, has his otherwise better judgment skewed by drink; young Davey (Chris Walley) a mulleted Motorhead fan who rides a pink bicycle, is the scapegoat for the cat’s demise, gifted with his own brand of logic, founded in idiocy.  The imposing and sinister Christy (Will Irvine) out for vengeance for the eye he lost to Padraic’s crossbow, accompanied by henchmen Joey and Brendan (Julian Moore-Clark and Daryl McCormack) have some darkly funny exchanges – it is Irvine who exudes the most menace, despite our gleeful horror at Padraic’s excesses.  Charlie Murphy’s boyish, cow-blinding Mairead shows how deep the madness infects the population, where adherence to a cause overrides sanity.  She and Padraic seem to share a moral code, centred on a mutual love of cats, and so it is not surprising when they form an alliance.

Christopher Oram’s cosy cottage set throws the decidedly un-cosy conduct of the characters into stark relief.  The gore and violence of the faction are at odds with the chintzy diddly-diddly-dee of Oirish country life.   Director Michael Grandage balances tension with the comedy, ensuring his cast deliver McDonagh’s relentless punchlines with exquisite timing, wringing the laughter from the audience, along with the shocks and the schlock as the action escalates.

Post-peace process, the play is perhaps now a warning of what Ireland could become again, when the lunacy of Brexit kicks in.  More generally, it’s a stark demonstration of the kind of things people will kill and be killed for, with the unlucky black cat as a metaphor for what drives the murderous pursuits of the misguided.  Violence is an answer, the play says, but it’s the wrong answer.

An exhilarating production of one of the funniest plays I’ve seen in a long time.  Hail, McDonagh!  Hail, Turner!  Hail bullets… well, perhaps not that last one.

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Gun show: Aidan Turner as Padraic (Photo: Johan Persson)

 

 


Dreamboats and Chainmail Coats

KNIGHTS OF THE ROSE

The Arts Theatre, London, Thursday 12th July, 2018

 

The jukebox musical is a long-established genre and a lucrative one (when it comes to the likes of Mamma Mia!) taking the back catalogue of an artiste or a period or a genre and shoehorning songs into a paper-thin plot.  Here, show creator Jennifer Marsden goes a step farther by shoehorning quotations from classical literature into the dialogue.  And so we get swathes of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Chaucer, along with Tennyson, Blake, Burns… The programme has three pages listing literary references… The overall effect, apart from showing how adept Marsden is at cutting-and-pasting, is perhaps not the desired one, as ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ give way to song lyrics in which characters refer to each other as ‘Baby’.  That clunking sound may not be the scenery being manoeuvred into position but the gear change in your mind as we lurch from period to period.

What this means is Name That Tune collides with Place That Quotation, keeping us at a distance from the characters and the unfolding drama.  Moments of emotional impact are therefore diluted by our, what Brecht would call, alienation from what’s unfolding.  Any engagement we have is with the performers, all of them working hard to keep this balloon in the air, and all of them wildly impressive.

Everything is played straight.  To spoof it up would give us another Spamalot.  To give us another Camelot, the show would need an original score.  No, Knights of the Rose is definitely its own thing.

Leading the cast as Prince Gawain is former-Hollyoaks star Andy Moss, who proved his mettle as a vocalist in a recent nationwide tour of Ghost.  Moss here proves himself more than capable of delivering rousing speeches to his troops – next stop, The RSC? – and he does his best with a character that has no flaws or self-doubt, or anything to get his teeth into.  He gets a couple of Bon Jovi numbers to belt out, so all is well.

Oliver Savile is floppy-haired Sir Hugo, the romantic lead, singing pop, rock (and later, classical) with a clear, sweet voice.  His rival Sir Palamon (in this performance, played by Ian Gareth Jones) brings musical theatre intonations to the rock songs, along with a meatier stage presence.  Matt Thorpe’s Sir Horatio does extremely well with his songs in a high register, while Ruben Van Leer’s humble John perhaps has the purest, most searing voice of all.

Van Leer sort of narrates, linking scenes together with recitations of verse.  He speaks with feeling and clarity but there are perhaps too many of these, keeping John out of the action, commenting on it (sometimes tangentially) rather than taking part, and slowing things down for the rest of us.

Katie Birtill’s Princess Hannah and Rebekah Lowings’s Lady Isabel, supported by handmaid Emily (Blue Woodward) provide a couple of the show’s highlights, absolutely killing Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out For A Hero and Total Eclipse of the Heart.  The vocals are superb, and the staging by director Racky Plews gives us 1980s rock video.  Plews blends modern choreography with period moves, and so we get Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale meets Heath Ledger’s A Knight’s Tale.

Bringing gravitas to the piece are Adam Pearce as Aethelstan and Rebecca Bainbridge as Matilda, King and Queen, two more mature players in this young cast.

There are moments of brilliance.  A stylised battle, complete with horses’ heads and animated rain, is evocative and effective.  A medieval chant, from Adam Pearce’s King Aethelstan, reverberates with drama as well as his beautiful bass baritone…

The creative choices are audacious, at turns bemusing and gobsmacking, but it’s the performers that give us the enjoyment, that sell us this hodgepodge and we like it.

How to fix it?  Me, I’d start lighter, to give more time for us to get attached to the characters and accustomed to the style before the action proper kicks in.  The transitions from poetry to rock song should be smoother, rather than speedbumps in the way of our engagement.  And give us a song we can sing along with for a more rousing finale.

Somewhere within in all this is the potential for a great show.  As it is, it’s a lot of fun – as a rock concert cum poetry recital delivered in fancy dress.

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Gawain down in a blaze of glory… Andy Moss (Photo: Mark Dawson)


Sold!

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

Playhouse Theatre, London, Saturday 13th January, 2018

 

David Mamet’s classic play gets an invigorating new lease of life in this snappy revival at the Playhouse.  It’s a top-drawer production that allows the quality of the writing to shine.  Mamet’s naturalistic dialogue, with its interruptions and stichomythia, is peppered with the argot of the characters’ occupation: they are real-estate salesmen, and the script relies on our intelligence and ability to put two and two together to garner what the terms mean.

Stanley Townsend almost steals the show as down-on-his-luck Shelly Levine, getting a new injection of enthusiasm when he makes a big sale.  Townsend’s reliving of the scene in which his clients sign the contract is a scream.  Townsend is a superlative performer and utterly, utterly credible.  In fact, credibility is the watchword of Sam Yates’s production; his direction paces the scenes perfectly, with outbursts, crescendos and moments of stillness.

Kris Marshall is suitably wound-up as office manager John Williamson and there are big laughs from Robert Glenister’s outbursts of profanity as the volatile Dave Moss.  Don Warrington is superb as the inarticulate, unassertive George, while Daniel Ryan elicits our sympathy as a customer trying to revoke a deal.

But the show belongs to Hollywood star Christian Slater in the powerhouse role of hard-selling Ricky Roma.  Slater’s fast-talking but at ease, inhabiting the role exquisitely; Roma is the big fish in this particular pond.  Both the humour and intensity of his performance are accentuated by his trademark circumflex eyebrows and smart-alec smirk.  Expertly supported by a flawless ensemble, Slater’s charismatic presence is magnetic.  Mamet allows us to see the character for what he is, exposing the tricks of the trade, or else Slater would have signing our lives away to all sorts of things.

Chiara Stephenson’s detailed set (a Chinese restaurant, then the guys’ office) grounds the action in its reality.  The play gives us a window into a high-pressure world and, by extension, shows us the dark underbelly of capitalistic pursuits, which tend to lead to corruption and crime.  Also, the play reveals how men are, what they talk about, how they express themselves.  Yes, the play is dated, a period piece, with its references to typewriters and so on, but the racism, the sexism and the way men feel they have to lock horns with each other and compete, are still very much with us.

The brief running time keeps things punchy, condensing the brilliance of the script and the brilliance of the performances into a perfect, highly entertaining piece that still has a lot to say and that remains very funny indeed.  Definitely not past its sell-by.

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Top dog: Christian Slater as Ricky Ross (Photo: Tristram Kenton)


Hair Bare Bunch

HAIR

The Vaults, London, Thursday 11th January, 2018

 

I am lucky to catch this 50th anniversary production just before it reaches the end of its run and I can only kick myself for not going sooner and allowing time for return visits.  Ground-breaking back in 1967, in terms of sound and format, the show comes across as fresh as a daisy you might wear in your hair.  Members of the ‘Tribe’ make observations of society: civil rights, pollution, war, while the ongoing plot involves handsome Mancunian-wannabe Claude (Robert Metson in fine voice) wondering whether to burn his call-up papers and stay with his hippy friends, chiefly Berger – the excellent, nay perfect, Andy Coxon.  Berger, king of the tribe, is a charismatic figure, sexy, funny – Every time I see Coxon perform I fall in love with him all over again, and that’s before he gets his bum out.

Shekinah McFarlane’s Dionne gets things off to a searing start with her powerful vocals in ‘The Age of Aquarius’; she also plays a mean saxophone later on.  Liam Ross-Mills’s Woof gets carried away with a Mick Jagger poster; Patrick George’s Margaret Mead has fun recruiting an audience member to be her ‘Hubert’ – in fact, everyone gets their moment to stand out: Laura Johnson’s Sheila, Jammy Kasongo’s Hud, Jessie May as barefoot and pregnant Jeanie… The strength of the solo singing is matched by the beauty of the ensemble’s harmonies.  Galt McDermot’s rock-informed score is rich with variety and contrast, while the lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado (and William Shakespeare) range from witty to hard-hitting.  The show is one big highlight.

The cast is not the only thing stripped bare.  The staging is kept minimal, keeping the performers to the fore.  Director Jonathan O’Boyle makes simple but sophisticated use of parachute silk and the occasional prop, keeping us in the Tribe’s trippy world.  An extended tripping sequence is chock-full of striking imagery.  Obviously, the lighting (by Ben M Rogers) helps tremendously with creating atmosphere and a sense of place, but I want to make special mention of the sound design by Calum Robinson and Max Perryment:  aurally, the show is magnificent. Solo voices, ensemble singing, the band and sound effects are all blended to the utmost clarity.  It is a real feast for the ears.

The band, under the musical direction of Gareth Bretherton, is kept behind a fence in an upstage area, but the sound fills the Vaults.  The choreography from William Walton avoids 1960s clichés and exudes an invigorating energy.  The music, the performers, the message, are all irresistible.  The show’s social conscience has resonances with today’s messed-up world just as much as in the 60s.  But beyond all that, it’s an exuberant celebration of life.

Let the sunshine in!  Peace, love and understanding, man.  Etc.

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What a whopper: Andy Coxon’s Berger leads a love-in


Yanks and Francs

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

Dominion Theatre, London, Wednesday 8th November, 2017

 

At long last, I get to see the hit show people have been raving about.  The contrarian in me expects to hate what everyone else enjoys but no, it really is at least as good as I’ve heard.

A new show, based on the 1951 Oscar-winning film, this is much more than a jukebox musical of Gershwin hits.  Set in post-war, post-Occupation Paris, it’s the story of Jerry, former soldier, now starving artist.  A chance encounter teams him up with another American, Adam, a composer whose music is just like Gershwin’s!  Third Musketeer in this group is Henri, a native Parisian who is hiding a dark secret from his stuffy parents (SPOILER: he’s a – gasp – a song-and-dance man!).  Jerry and Adam get work with a ballet company, where Jerry finally meets the fugacious Lise, a young ballerina with a fantastic haircut and even better dance moves.  Each of the three lads forms an attachment to Lise and drama ensues.  Jerry becomes a sort of part-time gigolo for wealthy benefactor Milo (relax, it’s a woman) which doesn’t exactly keep him in Lise’s good books.  This being a Hollywood version of reality, everything comes good at the end, via a series of eye-popping musical numbers.

As ever with musical theatre when they’re doing a show-within-a-show, I wonder why they bother.  They only need to go out onto the street and everyone will readily join in, subjugating their own lives and free will to participate in whatever moment the main characters need to express through song and dance.  In this Hollywood world, everyone is trained and proficient in the performing arts!

In Ashley Day as Jerry we have the perfect leading man, gliding, leaping, twirling and kicking his way through the story.  Day is an excellent singer too and can also meet the acting requirements of the role, the effortless comedy, the emotional points; Day’s Jerry is cheeky, cocky, charming and funny, served with just the right amount of cheese.  But before this review turns into a love letter to Ashley Day, I must remember there are other people in the show.

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Ashley Day defying gravity (oops, wrong musical) Photo: Alastair Muir

David Seadon-Young’s Adam is our contact with this rarefied world, narrating prologue and epilogue.  Seadon-Young is a warm and appealing presence but we know all along he’s not going to get the girl.  We know how these things work.  Haydn Oakley amuses as Henri, bumbling his way through a routine that can’t live up to the Hollywood production number in his head (we get to see both!).  Leanne Cope is a tiny mega-star as Lise, the gamin role, darting around one minute, and then gliding through the air as though it were water, the next.  Lise is a figure of mystery – why is she so resistant to Jerry’s relentless advances? – torn between duty and her true feelings, and Cope brings depth to the part so Lise is more than the object of men’s affections, desire or what-have-you.  Also strong is Zoe Rainey as brassy rich lady, Milo Davenport, with a belting voice as clear as a bell.  There is enjoyable support from Julie Legrand as Henri’s mother, and Julian Forsyth as his dad.

A massive ensemble populates this Paris, keeping the stage busy and giving weight to the big numbers.  They are a joy to behold, dancing in synch, in a range of colourful costumes.  Designer Bob Crowley is not shy of using stereotypes (berets and striped jumpers, for example) as shorthand, and his ever-moving set combines practical pieces with projections to give us impressions of a war-damaged city as seen through Jerry’s sketchbook.

Stephen Ridley conducts a fantastic orchestra, filling the auditorium with Gershwin’s energising, life-giving jazz, yet another element of perfection in this fabulous, glorious show.  Director Christopher Wheeldon also choreographs with vibrancy and plenty of period touches, while Craig Lucas’s book, which contains a couple of ‘shits’ and ‘Christs’ keep us in touch with the darker reality underpinning this balletic world.

The show works superbly well as a piece of escapism; it’s great to get away from the world of Tory sleaze, mass shootings and all the rest of it – but I think it’s doing the show a disservice to count it purely as escapism.  There is, to me, a clear message coming through.  This Paris is broken, seeking to rebuild itself and for that, the people need to keep their spirits up.  When the Brexit insanity and this rotten government have finally finished bringing this country down, we are going to need to keep our spirits up too.  This production reminds us to make time for singing and dancing in our lives.  We need joy to help us through hardship.

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Ashley Day getting to grips with his co-star, Leanne Cope (Photo: Alastair Muir)