Famously, little is known of Shakespeare the man, although we actually know more about him than other playwrights of the time. The gaps in our knowledge are taken as an open invitation to screenwriters, novelists, and everyone else to invent whatever they like to make their own version of him. Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman chose to straightwash the bard in their screenplay for the Oscar-winning 1998 film – Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day is widely recognised as having been written for a man. The screenplay takes plot points from Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night, with the idea that these life events inspired the plays, when in truth Shakespeare’s plays were adaptations of pre-existing stories. Not that this matters if we take this version at face value. Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of the screenplay holds true to the spirit of the film, and there’s a lot of fun to be had recognising versions of famous quotes. Even if you’re not well-versed (ha) in the Works, there is much to enjoy in this historical rom-com.
What strikes you first off in this sumptuous production is the set, which evokes the Globe Theatre and serves well for other locations. Milling around pre-show the cast give us previews of their costumes. As ever the costume department at the Crescent goes all out. This is a fabulous-looking show; Rosemary Snape and her team should be commended.
Oliver Jones is a handsome and endearing Will Shakespeare, managing to be both cerebral and bumbling. Alisdair Hunt makes an impression as his rival-mentor-friend Kit Marlowe. The notion that Marlowe fed Will some of his best lines under a balcony is more akin to Cyrano de Bergerac!
Bethany Gilbert absolutely shines as Viola de Lesseps who disguises herself as a boy in order to secure a role on the stage. Her delivery of the verse is second-to-none, although the play misses the opportunity to make the most of Will’s apparent attraction to someone of the same sex, as in Twelfth Night, say.
The ever-excellent Jack Hobbis is, have a guess, excellent as ever in his portrayal of harried theatre manager Henslowe, with superb timing and a performance that is just the right side of Carry On. The mighty James David Knapp absolutely storms it as the larger-than-life actor Ned Alleyn, while Joe Palmer is suitably entitled and horrible as villain of the piece, Wessex.
Also great are Mark Thompson as the bullish financier Fennyman who taps into his artistic side when he lands the role of the apothecary; Phil Rea as a deliciously bombastic Burbage; and Pat Dixon-Dale as Viola’s long-suffering Nurse. Jaz Davison’s imperious Queen Elizabeth is not without nuance.
There are many pleasing moments from supporting players: Charles Hubbard as boy-actor Sam; Dylan Guiney-Bailey as a bloodthirsty Webster; Niall Higgins as the Nurse within the play; Simon King as a riverboat cabbie…
A taut consort of musicians and vocalists provide period music to underscore the action and to cover transitions, and it all sounds perfectly lovely under Gary Spruce’s musical direction. There are a few moments when the music almost drowns the dialogue – luckily Mark Thompson is often around to tell them to shut up!
Director Michael Barry keeps the action well-focussed on an often busy stage – the period choreography is charming and doesn’t get in the way of the action. Keith Harris’s gorgeous set is backed by beautiful scenic projections, with Kaz Luckins’s fight direction adding authenticity as well as excitement.
A fine and funny fabrication that demonstrates the high quality production values on which the Crescent prides itself. All in all, an evening of excellent entertainment.
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.
Picture this: Stephen Tompkinson, Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson (Photo: Matt Crockett)
John Arden’s play from the late 1950s is not an easy one. This ambitious production in the Ron Barber Studio makes more than a good fist of bringing it to life. From the get-go it is obvious that production values are of a high standard. Faye Rowse’s impressive set, making use of packing crates and chequerboard tiles, serves as all the locations of the action: pub, graveyard, town square etc, atmospherically lit by James Booth’s design. Jen Coley’s costumes are spot on, leaving all the colour to the bright red of the soldiers’ tunics.
Director Colin Simmonds (himself a fine actor) elicits solid performances from most of his cast and moments of excellence from some of them. Nick Tuck is chirpy Private Sparky, one of the few likable characters in the piece, nicely contrasted with the other members of the trio, Gwill Milton and Vinnie Clarke. These three and their sergeant turn up in a Northern town and are immediately taken to be recruiting officers. The real purpose of their visit eventually becomes apparent. Musgrave (a powerful Mark Thompson) stages his own coup de theatre, taking drastic action in a bid to realise his own agenda: to bring an end to all war. It’s a noble aim but the end doesn’t justify the means. The play is startlingly relevant given this weekend’s news from the Ukraine but even without that, Musgrave’s argument still stands for British/American troops in places like Afghanistan. The two-eyes-for-an-eye approach to quashing ‘insurgents’ will only be curtailed if we stand against those who never get hurt in these conflicts, the ruling elite, represented here by establishment figures the Mayor and the Parson. It’s electrifyingly staged and worth the slow, uphill build-up.
Les Stringer’s Parson looks like Derek Jacobi and sounds like Richard Griffiths, in a neat character study that brings to the fore the detestable hypocrisy of the man. Similarly effective is Edward Milton’s Mayor, a buffoonish figure keen to execute some kind of social cleansing of his town by shipping the undesirables off to the army, but to my mind, the strongest of the local characters comes in the form of pub landlady Mrs Hitchcock, superbly played by Diane Pritchard. Barmaid Annie is also strongly depicted, with more than a hint of Ophelia’s madness, by Hannah Kelly.
The show is peppered with folk music motifs – there is some evocative playing; Tim Gardner’s discordant violin is a prime example. The characters are prone to singing snatches of folk songs at any given moment, which sometimes breaks the naturalism of the performance, reminding us that we are there to think about what the play is about as well as what it makes us feel.
Yet again, the Crescent provides a challenging and provocative production of a difficult play, well worth an evening of anyone’s time.
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 7th June, 2012
The Ron Barber Studio at Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre is an excellent, little – sorry, intimate space with an interesting and varied programme of shows. This production of David Mamet’s 1975 three-hander maintains the high standard. It is an absorbing and powerful evening in the company of a trio of low-life petty criminals as they plan a burglary in the back room of a cluttered and dismal junk shop.
The shop is run by Donny (Gerry Lucas), who bankrolls and ‘masterminds’ the job – in as far as his limited abilities allow. He is a bit of a soft touch, especially when it comes to the younger of his acquaintances, Bobby (Michael Radford) and tends to lose patience with the more neurotic Teach (Colin Simmonds). Mamet’s language is earthy and deceptively naturalistic. Add to that, the humour, the underlying sense of menace and the low-level crime, and you have something akin to an American Pinter – this has been noted by others before me. I rather think Mamet is the link between Pinter and Tarantino. Without Mamet, Reservoir Dogs, for example, would be a very different film.
The cast is impeccable. Sleazeball Teach is very funny and yet repugnant and unsettling. Colin Simmonds is note perfect – when Teach finally blows his top and trashes the shop, it is an exhilarating release of the tension that has built up throughout the evening. And what a set it is! Cluttered with details, messy and lived in – this is a credible and workable environment. Colin Judges and his construction team have recreated a corner of 1975. In that studio space, the audience is almost sitting around the card table with the characters. When Teach pushes the shelves over and sends crockery flying, you feel like you will get clobbered. Mark Thompson’s direction keeps the pace up – the set may be cluttered but the action has room to grow, the characters have space to reveal themselves.
Michael Radford’s Bobby is sensitive, barely able to articulate his thoughts. You wonder what would become of him with a different pair of role models. Donny is the indulgent father figure, peeling off banknotes and offering dietary advice. Here I must make special mention of the Chicagoan accents. Vocal coach Jaz Davison has equipped the cast with authentic intonations. I couldn’t fault them.
Gerry Lucas’s performance is the lynch pin of the production and the key to understanding the play. Crime and business are held up as two sides of the same coin – not the rare coin that gives the play its title and the plot its impetus, but a bent, two-headed one. The men approach the burglary as a business venture. At best, they are amoral. This is their version of the American Dream – the right of every man to turn a profit. They are self-serving capitalists and, the play shows us, that road leads to ruin. Donny’s ill-advised loans to Bobby, the inability to handle setbacks (a fourth, unseen accomplice is hospitalised), the use of force and the destruction of the shop (marketplace) all point towards disaster. Suddenly, Mamet’s thirty-odd year old play is bang up-to-date and relevant to fiscal policy and the current financial crisis.