Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (Harold Pinter Theatre)

The celebrated 1990s novel by Louis de Bernieres has already been adapted for the screen and now comes to the stage and the West End.

A complex and muddled love story is brought to life in this ambitious adaptation by Rona Munro, directed by Melly Still. Adding some traditional Greek vocalisations, the titular mandolin (and imagined orchestrations) and the odd Italian operatic aria, this flirts with being a musical but retains its ponderous dialogue and scene-setting from the source material.

Joseph Long as Dr Iannis

For much of the first half, Alex Mugnaioni’s Captain Corelli is on the sidelines, watching the story unfold in Cephalonia before his character joins in. Pelagia (Madison Clare), the educated daughter of the local doctor, falls for the physical charms of local soldier Mandras (Ashley Gayle) and they are betrothed on the eve of war despite their clear unsuitability.

Meanwhile, Italian sergeant Carlo (Ryan Donaldson) falls in love with sensitive comrade Francesco (Fred Fergus) as they bond on the battlefield. Carlo’s strength and loyalty becomes key to the fate of his Captain in act two.

Madison Clare and Alex Mugnaioni as Pelagia and Captain Correlli

With an innovative use of a set which suggests a range of locations, and projections which range from describing the island to providing a wash of blood at times of conflict, this production helps move a ponderous piece of theatre together.

It may be hard to care for the pompous musical Captain and the haughty Greek girl who spurns, then loves him, but with characters on the periphery to help like Carlo, the idealistic doctor (Joseph Long), the tough mother of Mandras (Eve Polycarpou), and the family’s goat and pine marten (Luisa Guerreiro and Elizabeth Mary Williams, both gifted and inventive physical theatre and circus performers), their story has a solid base.

Alex Mugnaioni and Elizabeth Mary Williams as Captain Corelli and the pine marten

Less powerful are the politics of war and the interminable battle scenes, although Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting and Jon Nicholls’s sound design evokes the tension and danger of conflict effectively.

A lengthy show at 2 hr 40, this probably does more justice to the book than the film, but a prior primer about the Second World War, the partisans, and the fate of Cephalonia (shown to become a tourist trap by the time two generations have grown) may be in order to avoid confusion.

Set design by Mayou Trikerioti

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin continues at the Harold Pinter Theatre until the end of August. Photo credits Marc Brenner.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter Theatre)

It must be Edward Albee year around the Haymarket area of London, with both The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? and this play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, running in high profile revivals within a few yards of each other.

This is by far the better known of the two plays, perhaps due to the 1966 film featuring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as George and Martha, and it is wearing its years well, with its cat and mouse domestic power games and the young guests trapped like rabbits in headlights, appalled but almost unable to get up and leave.

In this production Imelda Staunton plays Martha, a sarcastic, gin-swilling, braying, frustrated, pathetic shadow of the girl she must have been during the war years in which George courted her.  Now she – as she admits in one revelatory moment – repels his kindness, attention and love with insults, clawing, and hatred.

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

Conleth Hill is absolutely superb as George, who has been squashed and silenced for so long that the bitterness has grown and simmered under a sad surface.  He’s a man who perhaps once had ambition to lead and rule, but the years have got to him.  Six years younger than Martha, he looks fifteen years older, with a careworn air and a resignation to the life fate has dealt him.

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

Into their gameplay come a young biologist who has recently joined the college, a blond muscleman who has a clear career trajectory and a healthy dose of contempt for those around him, and his mousy wife who drinks to mask her unhappiness at being unable to conceive or cope with the social demands of her world.  Luke Treadaway plays the young blade Nick who is played to perfection by the older couple as they have done so many times before; while Imogen Poots is tragically wan as his constantly upchucking wife, Honey, who has a love for brandy which might yet turn her into a Martha.

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

This is a wordy play, but one in which each word has weight and meaning, and the full effect is one of an emotional rollercoaster by the end of act three.  Starting as something of a black comedy, there are laughs to be found through the earlier scenes (trying to identify a Bette Davis movie) which quickly turn into something much more uncomfortable with the arrival of the guests and the games people play.  There was mainly pin-drop silence in the final scenes, which were beautifully done.

This is a sensational revival full of screams, shouts, spittle, smoking, sadness and occasional silence.  James Macdonald directs with a sense of space and occasion, with the one living room set and a number of off-set locations (upstairs, the downstairs cloakroom, the kitchen).  The language has perhaps been a little ripened since the original (the opening salvo to the young couple of ‘screw you’ has become rather stronger) but the meat of the piece is there.

I saw this from the front row so every nuance of gesture, reaction, or interaction was captured, giving the feeling that we were almost additional trapped guests ourselves.  As an honest depiction of two marriages this play gives us much food for thought, conjuring up images of the youthful George and Martha before life and circumstance trapped them, and a vision into the future to what awaits Nick and Honey.

Be quick if you want to see this as final performances are on Saturday 27th May.

Sunny Afternoon (Harold Pinter Theatre)

The Kinks were arguably the first band to play hard rock, and this show, loosely based on the true story of their rise to fame as told by lead singer Ray Davies, certainly delivers on the sound – at times it is ear-shatteringly loud, especially once the few teasing chords of ‘You Really Got Me’ turn into a full performance of the song.

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Songs shoehorned into a story are only ever partially successful, which is probably why the big and loud numbers like ‘All Day And All Of The Night’, ‘Till The End of the Day’, and ‘Lola’ are presented in concert settings.  ‘Dead End Street’ is wittily repurposed to be sung by Ray and Dave’s dad, in their dingy flat, while ‘That Strange Effect’ (a favourite of the songs written by Ray Davies but best known for the version by Dave Berry) is used for an awkward love scene between ‘Ray’ and eventual first wife and Kinks back-up singer Rasa.  The two also have a trans-Atlantic duet over the ‘phone to ‘I Go To Sleep’ (best known these days for the version by a later girlfriend of Ray’s, Chrissie Hynde, with the Pretenders).

Performances are broadly good, with the central quartet of Danny Horn (Ray), Oliver Hoare (Dave), Tom Whitelock (Pete Quaife) and Damien Walsh (Mick Avory) evolving from gawky working-class louts to assured ‘followers of fashion’.  (Actually on the night we saw this, Walsh was replaced after the interval, by I think Alex Tosh, which was interesting in itself and proved that the cast was at least versatile in the face of change).  In supporting roles we have Jason Baughan as grasping publisher Eddie Kassner, Megan Leigh Mason (excellent) as Rasa, Charlie Tigh and Gabriel Vick as silly twit managers Grenville and Bobby, and Stephen Pallister in dual roles as Mr Davies and Allen Klein, their powerful late promoter.

It might be churlish to say that having closed the show, plot-wise, with ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and a curtain-call, we then switch to Madison Square Gardens for a performance of ‘Lola’ in which the audience is chivvied to its feet for a sneaky standing ovation, but there’s enough here to recommend this, if not at full-price, at least for any discount you can get during promotions.  We were in the front row of the dress circle, which was close up and high enough to give a good view of the moments which took place on the extended stage into the front stalls.

Amusing moment: ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, where the band start to develop their sartorial style.  Moving moment: Ray and Dave’s duet ‘A Long Way From Home’ (the show closes in 1970 and so does not address the breakdown of the sibling relationship, or the decline of Ray and Rasa’s marriage).  The programme may be rather flowery about the Kinks’ back catalogue, but there is certainly enough here to give a flavour of their varied output.  Curiously, Edward Hall directs, and I still think of him as primarily a Shakespeare specialist.  On this evidence, he’s not bad with a musical hook either.