Tag Archives: Peter McKintosh

Agent and a Scholar

SINGLE SPIES

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 18th February, 2016

 A double -bill of Alan Bennett plays concerning two of the men exposed as spies for the Soviet Union. Based on real people and true-life events, the plays differ from the typical Bennett fare of maudlin Northerners and their bathos, and give us an evening of sparkling dialogue and barbed language, but little in the way of plot.

An Englishman Abroad

It’s Moscow, 1958, and actress Coral Browne (Belinda Lang) is in town, performing in Hamlet. A chance encounter with the English exile Guy Burgess (Nicholas Farrell) leads to her visiting him in his less than luxurious apartment, where she is importuned to measure him for a new suit. Lang is marvellous as the brassy Browne and Farrell evokes sympathy as the vain but slovenly Burgess – Am I supposed to feel sorry for him, I wonder? They’re certainly both very charming, thanks to Bennett’s dialogue. It’s a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain from which we learn the Soviet Union was dull and dreary, a kind of open prison for the traitor who misses London so much. Apart from their discourse, very little takes place. There is a brief musical interlude with Burgess on the pianola, accompanied by his young boyfriend Tolya (an appealing David Young) on the balalaika. What we take from it is the evocation of a bygone age in a foreign land as well as the enjoyment of seeing such larger-than-life characters exquisitely portrayed by impeccable actors.

A Question of Attribution

It’s London in the late 1960s. Here we meet ‘fifth man’ Anthony Blunt (David Robb), years before his exposure. Dramatic irony abounds because we know what’s coming. Blunt is questioned on a regular basis by Chubb (Nicholas Farrell) who has granted Blunt immunity but not anonymity for helping with enquiries. These scenes are interwoven with Blunt at work as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures – there is a painting, said to be by Titian, that reveals a third figure beneath the varnish. Further investigation by X-ray reveals traces of a fourth and even a fifth man… The parallel is clever, the metaphor perfect. Robb is a twinkling yet dignified Blunt. His discourses on Art History are fascinating and arch but it is Bennett’s intelligence that we are admiring. Robb is a charismatic presence – we don’t get to the root of Blunt’s sympathies with Communism (the man professes to hate the public!) but we are captivated by him. Belinda Lang does a delightful turn as the Queen and we can’t help wondering how much the real one is like this in her unguarded (pun intended) moments.   David Young appears as a student of Blunt’s and I also enjoy Joseph Prowen as Colin the security guard who knows more about the paintings than the student! Bennett puts words in Colin’s mouth that makes us feel that art appreciation is within the reach of all of us – which, of course, it is.

Rachel Kavanaugh directs with a light touch, giving us an enjoyable couple of hours that tease us with history and nostalgia. Peter McKintosh’s imposing set suggests Whitehall, Moscow, the Courtauld Institute and the Palace, with only slight rearrangements of the furniture. It is a treat to see actors of such presence and skill deliver erudite and amusing writing. The plays sparkle like champagne but lack the kick of home-distilled vodka.

'Single Spies' Play by Alen Bennett. Touring Production

‘To be perfectly Blunt – David Robb (Photo: Alastair Muir)

 

 

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Good Clean Fun

DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th May, 2015

 

Opening night of the tour of this West End smash hit; I feel like a bit of a scoundrel myself for reviewing the show before the official press night (tomorrow) but then I can only talk about the performances I see.

I remember the Michael Caine/Steve Martin film from years ago only dimly: the Ruprecht scene, and the denouement – rest assured you need no foreknowledge of the movie to appreciate this adaptation in all its glory.

And glorious it is. There is a lightness of touch throughout – we are never invited to take any of it seriously. Even the supposedly more emotion numbers are tongue-in-cheek, and involve duplicity at some point. David Yazbek’s catchy tunes and witty lyrics are in keeping with the humour of Jeffrey Lane’s book, and there is a casual break-the-fourth-wall approach to the staging that adds to the fun.

Set on the French Riviera, this is the story of conman Lawrence (silver fox Michael Praed) who pretends to be a European prince in need of funds to save his country. Enter Freddy (Noel Sullivan, better than he’s ever been) a low-rent American trickster – the pair team up to fleece a Oklahoman heiress (Phoebe Coupe making a lasting impression as the bullish Jolene). When ‘soap queen’ Christine arrives in town, the pair become rivals, competing for both her money and the right to stay in town and ply their trade.

Carley Stenson is a powerful presence as the American target of the two conmen, belting out her songs in a good, old-fashioned musical voice. Noel Sullivan is spot on as Freddy, displaying a fine line in physical comedy, while Michael Praed is smooth and debonair and just as swoonsome as he was in Dynasty as European Prince Michael of Moldavia, managing to remain suave even when he’s swanning around in disguise as a German psychiatrist.  This talented and enjoyable trio are supported by the excellent Mark Benton as Andre, the crooked chief of police, and Geraldine Fitzgerald’s Muriel. It is clear from the off that the cast are enjoying themselves – without being self-indulgent. This enjoyment transmits to the audience and so we enjoy the performances rather than admire the reprehensible behaviour of this unscrupulous, immoral characters. It’s not even a morality tale. No one is reformed at the end.

The story flourishes in its new theatrical medium. Peter McKintosh’s elegant set hosts a lively ensemble of dancers for the production numbers. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography and direction give a flavour of the South of France, tempered with some Latin American moves and music.

It all adds up to a cracking night out – a superior example of a film-to-stage adaptation, a toe-tapping, laugh-out-loud fun ride performed by a stellar cast, company and band.

dirty rotten


More Rabbit Than Sainsburys

HARVEY

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 10th February, 2015

Mary Chase’s 1944 play is better known for the James Stewart film version – this revival reveals a sharper script from a female playwright, that rare beast (especially in those days).

It tells the story of a widow and her daughter who live with their brother and uncle respectively, one Elwood P Dowd. The man causes them no end of social embarrassment because of his best friend, the eponymous Harvey. The problem is Harvey is a (to us) invisible white rabbit over six feet tall. The widow tries to get her brother committed to a sanatorium so that the house will become hers – and a slew of comic incidents ensues, involving mistaken identity and some farcical running around.

The upshot is a delightful, charming and very funny evening, expertly played by a company with faultless comic timing.

Maureen Lipman is dream casting as the widow Veta, conveying her stress-induced dottiness along with some beautifully nuanced physical comedy. As disgruntled daughter and proto-teenager Myrtle Mae, Ingrid Oliver brings humour and a touch of Forties chic. There is a host of strong character actors: Amanda Boxer makes an impression as Miss Chauvenet, and Linal Haft makes the most of his cameo as an embittered cab driver. In the ‘meatier’ roles, Youssef Kerkour is a hoot as hired muscle Wilson: an imposing presence, Kerkour uses his physicality to contrast with his character’s softer side.

The excellent David Bamber’s Dr Chumley works himself up into a froth in hilarious scenes, sustaining this heightened delivery and displaying a nice line in double takes, while Jack Hawkins and Sally Scott play doctor-and-nurse and add to the confusion attractively.

James Dreyfus in the James Stewart role of Elwood lends his characterisation a laid-back, camp manner and it works like a charm. His offhand gestures to his unseen friend help us to ‘see’ the rabbit. Elwood is sweet, open-hearted and generous – when it is revealed that Dr Chumley’s cure will suppress not only his hallucinations but his good nature, making Elwood just like a normal human being (“and you know what bastards they are”) it is decided that a giant rabbit is not such a bad thing to have around the house after all. The most important thing is to be kind, the play reminds us.

PeterMcKintosh’s substantial yet revolving set grounds the action in its own reality, lending credibility to the settings so that Elwood and Harvey seem more at odds with this ‘normality’.   Matthew Scott’s lovely, wistful music gives the transitions a bittersweet feel, perhaps lamenting that the world isn’t like the play but we wish it was; to have Elwoods and Harveys around would make the world a better place.

Director Lindsay Posner keeps things ticking along at a sometimes gentle pace – some moments could do with a bit more intensity to accentuate the farcical aspects, but the cast are allowed to have their head and, above all, Chase’s sparkling script is revealed as an overlooked jewel of a comedy. A feel-good piece that tickles the imagination as much as the funny bone.

"You got an ology?"  Maureen Lipman  (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

“You got an ology?” Maureen Lipman (Photo: Manuel Harlan)