Tag Archives: Simon Higlett

A ‘Night’ to Remember

TWELFTH NIGHT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 13th November, 2017

 

Director Christopher Luscombe sets his Illyria in the late Victorian era, with Orsino’s court designated as ‘the town’ and Olivia’s estate as ‘the country’.  Thus the action is divided along the same lines as The Importance of Being Earnest – the characters even travel between the two by train.  There is a distinctly Wildean feel to Duke Orsino’s court.  Orsino (Nicholas Bishop) surrounds himself with witty young men, among them Valentine (Tom Byrne) and a rather striking Curio (Luke Latchford) posing almost naked for a painting.  Later, we meet Antonio (an elegant and dignified Giles Taylor) who openly declares his love for Sebastian while sporting Oscar Wilde’s green carnation – he even gets arrested!

Washed up into this world of witty men is Viola, who is more than a match for them.  Disguising herself as a boy and becoming servant to Orsino, Viola, now Cesario, finds herself falling for the Duke and he for her – although he buys into the disguise.  There is a sliding scale to sexuality and Orsino seems skewed toward one end.

Dinita Gohil makes for a bright-eyed and plucky Viola – it is about her fate we care the most.  Kara Tointon’s elegant and haughty Olivia becomes more enjoyable as she begins to dote on Cesario.  Her protracted period of mourning for a dead brother is clearly to keep Orsino at bay, while Orsino woos by remote control, preferring the company of young men.

As Malvolio, Adrian Edmondson gets across the prudish servant’s pompous officiousness and also his hissing contempt for the others.  In his mad, yellow-stockinged scene, he’s more of a cheeky chappie from the music hall; I get the feeling there is more wildness beneath the surface than he lets out.  His best moments come at the end when Malvolio, a broken man, comes to realise how he has been played and by whom.

Vivien Parry is excellent as Maria, instigator of the practical joke against Malvolio, bringing a lot of fun and heart to proceedings, but John Hodgkinson’s Sir Toby Belch (who does more farting than belching) has little of the lovable rogue about him.  He’s a drunkard, a user and a bully – too much of a mean streak for me.  Similarly, Beruce Khan’s Feste is embittered with anger and cruelty, which could be argued to stem from his position, as entertainer to silly white people, but I find the vehemence of his revenge leaves a bitter aftertaste, after an otherwise enjoyable and engaging performance.

There are many high points.  The letter scene involves some hilarious comic business with the garden statuary; Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a posh, bewildered delight; Sarah Twomey’s Fabia is a lot of fun; and songs like ‘O Mistress Mine’ and ‘Come Away, Death’ are beautifully melancholic, even with added Indian beats and instrumentation.

Nigel Hess’s original compositions bring Victorian music hall flavours but at times the music is overpowering.  It’s a bit like when an Oscar winner speaks for too long and the orchestra strikes up to play them off.  Several scenes suffer from this intrusion.  Some of the humour seems heavy-handed: a pack of servants fleeing the mad Malvolio doesn’t quite work for me.

Overall, I like the style.  Simon Higlett’s design marries Victorian architecture (hothouses, railway stations) with an autumnal palette.  Mortality is ever-present in the piles of dead leaves.

While there is much to admire and enjoy about this lively production with its many fresh ideas, I’m afraid some of the cakes are a little stale and some of the ale is somewhat flat.

Twelfth Night production photos_ 2017_2017_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_234119 (1)

To the letter: Adrian Edmondson as Malvolio (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

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Haunting

GHOSTS

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 27th November, 2013

 

Henrik Ibsen’s tragedy was a bit of a flop in its day, but of course I was too young to have seen it back then.  At last, English Touring Theatre is bringing this top quality production to the provinces and we get to see what all the commotion was about.

Upcoming artist Osvald has returned to his widowed mother’s home for the summer.  Mother is busy preparing to open an orphanage in her late husband’s name to commemorate a decade of him being in the ground.  Osvald has an eye on Regina the maid – although his intentions are not wholly romantic… As the action unfolds, family secrets emerge from the shadows.  I won’t go into detail but there is a whiff of incest in the air, degenerative disease and assisted suicide – Osvald has inherited more than a propensity for pipe-smoking from his dear old dead dad…

Amazingly, it’s not heavy-going at all.  Stephen Unwin directs his own (superb) translation of the Norwegian, allowing brief moments of light among all the clouds.  There is warmth and levity in this storm- and doom-laden household, principally from Pip Donaghy’s portrayal of Engstrand, the Santa-bearded workman, remonstrating with daughter Regina (Florence Hall) in Highlands twangs.  Patrick Drury makes a commanding Pastor Manders, a cleric who is not as holier-than-thou as he pretends, but the key players are Kelly Hunter as the Widow Alving and Mark Quartley as her ailing son.

These last two are utterly compelling in a powerful denouement, pitched perfectly against the dawning of a new day – Simon Higlett’s set draws from Edvard Munch’s original designs; the back wall is dominated by an enormous picture window – we watch the weather over the mountains; clouds roll, rain falls… and ultimately the sun comes up to dazzle us as dark truths are brought into the light.

Ibsen was a forerunner in the movement from melodrama to Naturalism in 19th century theatre, and while there is something of the Greek tragedies in this piece, something a little Oedipussy in the central relationship, the play reminds us of Ibsen’s importance and brilliance.

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Satirically Correct

YES, PRIME MINISTER

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 7th May, 2013

Writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn have updated their fondly remembered TV sitcom for this new stage version – the familiar characters are there but the piece feels wholly up-to-the-minute.

The scene is Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence. Over the course of a weekend, the fate of the government, Europe and the civil service is decided when an international crisis is provoked and just about averted.   Simon Higlett’s set, all wooden panels and leather-bound books, suggests strength and permanence – two qualities rarely present in government!

It begins like a drawing-room comedy, with cabinet secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby popping out epigrams like champagne corks  His view of what makes a PM is “No previous experience, no qualifications, and limited intelligence.”  Seems about right.  As Sir Humphrey, Crispin Redman expunges the brilliant ghost of Nigel Hawthorne and makes the character his own, in a masterly portrayal of snobbishness, privilege and devious manipulations.

The PM, by contrast, is less erudite and slower on the uptake.  Michael Fenton Stevens rants about our fellow Europeans in a litany of politically incorrect and derogatory names – and you can’t help wondering what our current PM blurts out behind closed doors.  Fenton Stevens’s Jim Hacker is a tightly wound spring, kept that way by Sir Humphrey’s evasions.  The play says what the TV series said: it’s really the civil service that has the power, the appointed officials rather than the elected representatives.

There are topical jokes aplenty and many examples of impenetrable verbiage and double-talk for the actors to get their teeth into.  There’s a very amusing sequence when principal private secretary Bernard (Michael Matus) takes a phone call from the BBC and reels off stock answers from a pre-prepared folder, exactly the kind of fobbing-off MPs give us every time they speak to the media.

Matus is excellent as bungling Bernard – the playing is broader than you get on television and this version needs it to be.   There is a danger the whole thing could become rather static and overly wordy, but the energised performances keep the pace fast and the characters engaging.

In the second act, Fenton Stevens dominates as Jim Hacker falls apart, becoming more manic and desperate by the second.  It’s a hilarious display of fury and sarcasm that ends up with him cowering under his own desk.

The plot is farcical but not Whitehall farcical, so to speak.  It’s like a chess game played by committee as Hacker and his advisors try to think their way in and out of trouble.  Their quick fire discussions cover a lot of ground: oil deals, the environment, curbing the civil service, religion’s place in government, morality… Hacker makes a salient point when he advocates experts within departments, such as actual teachers in the Department of Education, clinicians in the Health Service… It’s a lovely idea and preferable to those Hacker calls ‘amateurs’ that we have today.

You really have to pay attention to catch all the barbs but your concentration is rewarded with some sharp satire and deftly played comedy.  This, being a sitcom-based piece, has the status quo restored by the end.  Like the sturdy set, the established order remains; only those rushing about and making fools of themselves within it come and go.

Michael Fenton Stevens keeps calm and carries on

Michael Fenton Stevens keeps calm and carries on


Fisher Queen

WONDERFUL TOWN
Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 22nd May, 2012

This lesser-known Leonard Bernstein musical from 1953 left me wondering why it isn’t staged more often. Teeming with life, funny characters and catchy melodies, it tells the story of Ruth and Eileen, sisters who leave their home town of Columbus, Ohio to seek their fortunes in New York City. They rent a basement flat in Greenwich Village and are immediately mistaken for a pair of hookers. Eventually, they sort out their employment issues (Ruth as a writer; Eileen as an actor) and their romantic entanglements.

What struck me was the tone of the piece. It is neither saccharine nor salacious. It strikes the perfect balance between sweet and saucy and there is not a trace of cynicism in the entire show. It seems to suggest that the American Dream is dead. New York is full of people whose ambitions and aspirations have been thwarted. This theme is encapsulated by the song What A Waste which tells of writers, artists, musicians, actors who have all found the streets of NYC are not paved with golden opportunities. But, being a musical comedy, it doesn’t leave matters standing like that. If you don’t give up on your hopes and aspirations, and keep plugging away, all will come good. After some confusions and false starts, the sisters achieve their goals and all ends happily.

As Ruth, Connie Fisher establishes herself beyond all doubt as a character actor and more than a rent-a-Maria. She gets the snappiest one-liners and demonstrates an aptitude for physical comedy. Her voice seems to be in a lower register and it suits her. Her scene with a bunch of Brazilian sailors obsessed with dancing the Conga was a definite highlight for me. I can easily imagine her as the next Fanny Brice.

She is matched by Lucy van Gasse as man-magnet Eileen. This blonde soprano charms men merely by existing. Suitors fall over themselves to be near her. Before long, the Irish – sorry, Oirish – contingent of the NYPD are fawning over her – the second act begins with a deliciously funny scene in the cop shop, just one of this show’s many moments that had the audience gasping in delight. Michael Xavier is a dashing Bob Baker with his rich voice and handsome face. Nic Greenshields is sweet as gentle giant Wreck, a footballer in training who has to provide his own cheerleading, and Sevan Stephen’s Bohemian landlord, Mr Appopolous, is a masterclass in comic playing.

Simon Higlett’s massive set is stylish and versatile, The vibrant score is melodious with a jazzy twist – you can detect a hint of West Side Story in the arrangement. These songs deserve to be standards. A Little Bit In Love is perfectly charming. Ohio is wistful, and beautifully harmonised by Fisher and van Gasse. Director Braham Murray keeps the pace swift and the surprises keep coming, but credit is due to the producers who had the good sense to revive this overlooked gem and bring it to a new audience.

I hope they now turn their attention to Funny Girl with Ms Fisher in the lead…