Hansard (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

This new play by Simon Woods is set in the political turmoil of 1988, where the Conservative government of the day was pushing through the Local Government Act and its controversial Section 28.

Alex Jennings in Hansard
Alex Jennings in Hansard

Alex Jennings plays Robin, a minor figure is the government. He’s in the Cotswolds for the traditional weekend to enjoy his lawn, a meal with friends, and a reunion with the left-wing wife (Diana, played by Lindsay Duncan) he appears to hate.

What follows is 80 minutes of tedious sparring which feels like a poor imitation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which Robin constantly belittles his wife’s looks, politics, attempts at affection, drinking, and even devotion to their sports-loving son. He may not be the stereotypical Tory, but as a man he is repellent, and that’s a difficulty even the director (Simon Godwin) and actor cannot get past.

It’s 1988 but Diana appears to spend all her time in the house, without working: unlikely at that time, and with her progressive views surely she would be out and about making a difference to those underprivileged types she talks about. Hansard does seem to spend a long time making fun of the opposition viewpoint, though, including the old and laboured joke about “a succession of leaders who look like badly dressed geography teachers”.

Lindsay Duncan in Hansard
Lindsay Duncan in Hansard

Despite the excellent performances from both Jennings and Duncan, who rarely misstep, I felt they were not given enough to do. Despite the odd sparkling line, the whole play felt desperately out of step now and certainly questionable for 1988. The use of the son as a cypher to explain why Robin supports Section 28 made no sense, and the speech by Diana when she describes finding “my boy” in a dress and make-up and feeling repelled is simply frustrating. A section where Robin goads Diana by suggesting she can “make her mark” by contracting AIDS is misjudged, at best.

I really wanted to like this play, as on the page it has much potential and the arguments across the political divide, both political and personal, could have been much fresher and believable. Instead we wait through those minutes of sniping which feel staged and when the moment comes when this couple crumple and find common ground due to that terrible event in their lives, we feel nothing for them.

Hansard feels like a throwback comedy for the middle-classes, but it just isn’t funny or biting enough.

Photo credits Catherine Ashmore.

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The Light in the Piazza (Royal Festival Hall)

A hybrid of opera and musical theatre, The Light in the Piazza is based on an old Hollywood film and sets a complex love story among the ruins and sites of Florence.

The Royal Festival Hall isn’t known for staging musicals, and it is easy to see why – with no flies, wings or ubiquitous revolve, opportunities for set and staging are limited, and the hall is best utilised for classical concerts or semi-staged operas.

Renee Fleming, Dove Cameron and company of The Light in the Piazza
Renee Fleming, Dove Cameron and company of The Light in the Piazza

Here, the set is dominated by a huge plaster statue of a headless naked man’s bottom, and a cut-down snippet of set with a staircase, doors, archway, and a small space which is utilised for anything from a hotel room, art gallery and church to a tourist square, pavement cafe and briefly, Rome.

The cast is headed by opera superstar Renee Fleming as protective mum Margaret – I felt she didn’t quite fit her character early on but her singing was wonderful and as the character softened and we had an insight into her dead marriage back home (telling and brief scenes from Malcolm Sinclair) we warmed to her.

Renee Fleming
Renee Fleming

Dove Cameron plays Clara, mid-twenties and emotionally underdeveloped due to a childhood trauma (it felt for ages that the problem may have been terminal illness, as Margaret’s explanation to the audience comes late). Cameron is best known for her work for Disney, including the Descendants film series. Her high soprano didn’t quite click for me, but she acted well in a difficult role, depicting a girl finding romantic love for the first time.

Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen
Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen

Rob Houchen, a new name to me, is Fabrizio, the Florentine who falls so head over heels for Clara he sings an impassioned aria about her – in Italian! He has a glorious voice, although in his scenes he is saddled with speaking in broken English.

Alex Jennings plays his father, with better English due to his work with American authorities during the war. He’s an urbane shop owner with a wife (Marie McLaughlin) stereotypical Italian until she breaks the fourth wall in act two to tell us what her family are talking about in scenes which verge on comedy, and older son (Liam Tarne) who neglects his flighty wife (the scene-stealing Celinde Schoenmaker).

Alex Jennings and Rob Houchen
Alex Jennings and Rob Houchen

The score, by Adam Guettel, is not that memorable, sadly, but is performed well – including solos for Fleming, Cameron, and Houchen, and duets for Fleming/Cameron, Cameron/Houchen and even Fleming/Jennings. The orchestra of Opera North do well, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, even if they over-dominate that vast stage.

View from front stalls.
View from front stalls.

The Light in the Piazza feels swamped in such a large space, even with the top level closed. I was lucky enough to secure my seat for half the price, but could have paid a lot less. Pricing this as a top-flight West End show when it is effectively a semi-staging feels too ambitious, and show would surely have more emotional impact in a more intimate space.

Renee Fleming and Alex Jennings.
Renee Fleming and Alex Jennings.

From my seat in the front stalls I did feel engaged and involved, but in the back row the experience would be very different. Kudos to director Daniel Evans and designer Robert Jones for bringing a bit of Italian magic to this cavernous stage, although the ensemble were limited to bits of movement and dancing on that staircase.

Production photo credits Dewynter.

Theatre review: Collaborators

In 1939, the great Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov was commissioned to write a play about the country’s dictator, Josef Stalin.  This was in many ways a poisoned chalice: many of Bulgakov’s plays were banned under the Soviet regime (except The Days of the Turbins/The White Guard, a personal favourite of Stalin’s), and as an opponent of all the regime stood for it was his most difficult commission.  The play was completed (called Batum) but never passed for performance; it is considered his weakest work.

This commision is the seed for John Hodge’s new play, ‘Collaborators’, which is currently showing at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe (and then transferring to the Olivier), directed by Nicholas Hytner.  We first meet Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) in the small apartment he shares with his wife Yelena (Jacqueline Defferary), young worker Sergei (Pierce Reid, who lives in the kitchen cupboard, bare as the house has no food), former aristocrat Vassily (Patrick Godfrey) and Praskovya (Maggie Service), a teacher of history.  They are poor but defiant.

Into this life we hear of Bulgakov’s uneasy dreams about Stalin, and his declining health – flagged in an amusing interlude with a dotty doctor (Nick Sampson).  Once secret policeman Vladimir (Mark Addy) visits and asks for a play to celebrate the 60th birthday of Stalin, things start to change for the writer – and he starts to change to, following a series of visits where he collaborates with his own subject (Simon Russell Beale), to the point where they start to become each other – Bulgakov mouthing the propaganda of his leader in casual conversation, and Stalin excitedly shaping ‘Young Josef’ for the stage.

‘Collaborators’ might be initially read as a comedy, and Russell Beale plays off Jennings very well – with some sharp scenes of comedy.  But after the interval the play takes a darker turn, becoming a black comedy, and a tragedy too.  The performances throughout are uniformly excellent, although much of it is a two-hander between two masterful actors at the top of their game.

The concept of ‘Collaborators’, especially in its staged scenes from the banned Moliere play, brings to mind Bulgakov’s most well-known work, his novel The Master and Margarita, which is a thinly-veiled critique of the Stalinist regime and all its horrors, where people are tried and shot according to quota, where people go to work and never return home, where further enquiries are catastrophic.  This novel was a sharp satire with a sense of the ridiculous – and this is where Lodge’s play succeeds, in presenting a monster in a black comedy coat, and the collapse and tragedy of a man and a nation with smoke and mirrors.