Tag Archives: national theatre

Hadestown (National Theatre, Olivier)

Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada. Photo by Helen Maybanks.
Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada. Photo by Helen Maybanks.

When this musical opened at the National Theatre in mid-November 2018, it was generally welcomed by critics who bought into its fusion of Greek mythology and New Orleans jazz.

With years in the making, and runs in New York and Canada, this has grown from a concept album for Anaïs Mitchell (who wrote book and lyrics, and composed the score which has now been lushly rearranged for a small band by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose) to a fully-fledged musical, bound next for Broadway.

At the top of the show, the band and cast walk on to a richly detailed set, waving “hi” to the audience, who are pulled into the action by a Cab Calloway-like Hermes (played by veteran musical performer André De Shields), who turns on a toothy smile on cue and launches into the first song “On the Road to Hell” which brings the main characters to our notice.

Andre De Shields and the company of Hadestown. Photo by Helen Maybanks.
Andre De Shields and the company of Hadestown. Photo by Helen Maybanks.

Although the songs are memorable, it takes a while for the show to get going, although from the start Eva Noblezada (who was so memorable in Miss Saigon) is in terrific voice as Eurydice, a “hungry girl”, a “little songbird”, who spars with Orpheus (Reeve Carney) before getting sidetracked by the growling, Leonard Cohen-like gravel bass of Patrick Page’s Hades, “king of iron, king of steel”.

The modern setting suits some of the characters – Persephone (Amber Gray), who twenty years earlier might have been the bright and caring young girl we saw on stage in Mythic is now half-sozzled, cynical, and even though she professes to hate the underworld, she still unthinkingly takes her husband’s hand when he arrives early to take her back and to condemn the upper world to months of want and winter.

Amber Gray and the company of Hadestown. Photo by Helen Maybanks.
Amber Gray and the company of Hadestown. Photo by Helen Maybanks.

Orpheus is still a poet, but more of a student strummer, who utilises the melody of the Gods to capture the heart of Eurydice, and to thaw the heart of the stone-flinted Hades. Carney – who has played this role in all productions so far – may have a thin voice at times, but it is tuneful, and his Romeo and Juliet kind of teenage emotional attachment to the ballsy Eurydice convinces.

As well as the main principals, there are the three Fates, the chorus who cajole, condemn and curse the central couple, and a group of hardworking singer-dancers, who populate Hermes’ bar and later, Hades’ sweating workers who “build the wall”. Some reviewers have chosen to take the anthemic song against “our enemies” to reflect the foreign policy of the 45th President of the USA, but the song appears to have come first, and now presents an interesting coincidence.

Eva Noblezada,  Andre De Shields with  Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloria Onitiri as The Fates. Photo by Helen Maybanks.
Eva Noblezada, Andre De Shields with Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloria Onitiri as The Fates. Photo by Helen Maybanks.

There are moments of pure emotional pleasure – Eurydice’s final descent, Hades and Persephone remembering their first meeting in the garden, the workers trying to be free “if he can do it, so can she, if she can do it, so can we”, Hermes raising his glass to the song with the sad ending, the frenzied dancing to a drum solo, Eurydice leaving her red rose behind (“she called your name but you weren’t listening”), and Page’s depths of earth vocalising.

Andre de Shields and Patrick Page. Photo by Helen Maybanks.
Andre de Shields and Patrick Page. Photo by Helen Maybanks.

After the bows, though, there’s a song “for Orpheus, and all of us”, which is quiet, and sad, and yet uplifting. This is in stark contrast to the spectacle of the triple revolve and the pulsing music which has gone before, and works perfectly.


War Horse (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

As part of the commerations marking the end of the First World War, the acclaimed adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel returns to the National Theatre eleven years after its debut.  War Horse is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, adapted by Nick Stafford, designed by Rae Smith, and produced in association with the Handspring Puppet Company.

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Young Albert (Thomas Dennis) rears Joey, a part-thoroughbred horse, even persuading him to plough the fields on the farm. His father Ted (Gwilym Lloyd) is a feckless drinker, whose decision to stay home and look after the business in the last war has left him behind his successful brother, Arthur (William Ilkley). His wife (Jo Castleton) has become resigned to her marriage but fiercely protects her son and his interests.

Once war is declared, Ted smells money and sells Joey to the Army for use as a cavalry horse for sympathetic Major Nicholls (Ben Ingles): Albert vows that they will be together again someday, and eventually circumstance forces the sixteen year-old to follow cousin Billy (Jasper William Cartwright) into battle, and thus the fortunes of both man and horse are followed until the day of Armistice.

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By utilising puppetry to bring life to Joey and his fellow battle horse, Topthorn, and to birds, a goose who provides comic diversion in lighter days, and the equine victims of conflict, this production provides an anthropomorphism which stays close to Joey’s narration of the original novel.

His bond with Albert, then Topthorn, and later with the sympathetic German captain Friedrich (Peter Becker) and French girl Emile (Joelle Brabban) is perfectly conveyed, and you quickly forget that these animals are brought to life by gifted puppeteers inhabiting their hearts and hinds.

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A sparsley dressed set backed by simple video projection conjures up Albert’s home farm, No Man’s Land, the parade ground, a French village, and a field hospital.  The sound and lighting design, the interludes with the Song Man (Bob Fox), and the acting of Dennis, Becker, Castleton and the sergeant (Jason Furnival) in particular, make this production an emotional rollercoaster, which does not outstay its 165 minute running time, and which treats the memories of serving men and animals in conflict with respect.

I previously saw War Horse during NT Live, in 2014, when it was still running at the New London Theatre.  It was a rather different experience to this one, but still powerful. If you wish to catch War Horse (2018), then you will need to try for Friday Rush or day tickets for the remaining performances (to the 5th January 2019).

After that, the production continues its UK tour, visiting Glasgow, Sunderland, Canterbury, Stoke-on-Trent, then visits Ireland (Dublin) and New Zealand (Auckland).  I wish everyone involved luck for a successful run, and I would urge prospective audiences to go and book for this superb adaptation.

Photo credits: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg.

 

 


Antony and Cleopatra (National Theatre, Olivier)

Simon Godwin’s epic new production of the Shakespeare play of love between the Roman warrior Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra takes up residence at the National Theatre with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo as the ill-fated, middle-aged lovers.

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Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo – photo by Johan Persson

We first find the vain Cleopatra by her opulent pool, with her handmaidens Charmian (Gloria Obiyano) and Iras (Georgia Landers).  She is hot for the soldier who is torn by his passion for her and his duty at home, where his wife Flavia has caused division and dissent before her death.

His decision to leave seems to be an act of bravado to impress his ‘Egypt’ rather than anything in supplication to the ambitious Caesar (Tunji Kasim) and the drunken Lepidus (Nicholas Le Provost), with whom he forms a triumvirate of power.

As is usual with the Bard, events are telescoped into shorter timelines: this period of time lasted ten years in historical record.  Antony, newly widowed, marries Caesar’s ambitious sister, Octavia (Hannah Morrish), and settles into the power he will eventually ditch to return to the bosom of Cleopatra, making her Empress to his over-reaching ego.

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Tunji Kasim and Hannah Morrish – photo by Johan Persson

The best supporting perfomances come from Tim McMullan (the loyal Enobarbus), Katy Stephens (a gender-swapped Agrippa), Fisayo Akinade (Eros, who excels in one amusing scene as a messenger and is tragic at his final hour) and Nick Sampson (schoolmaster Euphronius), although, for a change, most of the cast demonstrate an affinity with the blank verse and its meaning.

The sets by Hildegard Bechtler take full advantage of the Olivier’s revolve, with at least five changes including scenes which have characters rising and lowering into the depths of the drum; while the music by Michael Bruce and lighting by Tim Lutkin do much to give the sense of court opulence and the grime and ritual of the battlefield.

One fatal flaw for me, though, was the jarring change of pace when Antony’s final moments were played for laughs, which left the final act a sadly unmoving experience, despite the presence of the real snake and the dignity of Cleopatra’s exit on her monument.

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Sophie Okonedo – photo by Johan Persson

Watch for the scope and scale of this project, and for the chemistry (and age-appropriateness) of Fiennes and Okonedo, who are glorious together, but also enjoy the small moments and performances which can fill out a play of this length – three hours and thirty minutes, which flies past.

 

 


Exit the King (National Theatre Olivier)

This classic absurdist black comedy by Ionesco is brought to the stage in a new version by Patrick Marber, and covers the last hour in the life of King Berenger (Rhys Ifans), who has devoted his life to pleasure and presided over the destruction of his kingdom to the point that some of them are liquifying where they stand, and his ministers drown in a distant river during the span of the play.

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He has been a cruel, unthinking tyrant to his people, and now, in his fifth century, it is time for him to die. No longer can he command the weather, his palace is cracking apart, and there is darkness across the land.

The only survivors at court are his two wives, sensible Marguerite (Indira Varma) and flighty Marie (Amy Morgan), who flank the King’s opulent throne with smaller ones of their own, a palace Guard (Derek Griffiths), a cleaning woman straight out of Acorn Antiques (Debra Gillett), and a Doctor who also doubles as court executioner in the manner of a jovial Mengele – smiling as he tortures and torments.

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Derek Griffiths and Indira Varma

Ifans is reminiscent of a blend of Spike Milligan and Lindsay Kemp in his wig and white face, a clown without a joke, a pathetic figure with visions of grandeur and divine right, and Anthony Ward’s design makes the most of the Olivier’s space and the famed drum revolve, with a hint of the old Pepper’s ghost trickery when it matters most.

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Amy Morgan and Rhys Ifans

A wickedly funny and unexpectedly moving piece of theatre, expertly directed by Marber and paced with comic touches (the small lecture theatre table that folds out of the King’s throne, the cupboard in the palace walls full of sweepers and brushes), this is a competent revival which deserves celebration.

Buy the acting edition of Exit the King at Amazon UK


Julie (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

Polly Stenham’s updated version of the Strindberg classic Miss Julie doesn’t quite come off despite the best efforts of its central trio of cast (Vanessa Kirby as Julie, Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jean, Thalissa Teixeira as Kristina).

Although the Second World War setting of Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie, which I saw in a television version around twenty years ago, worked well enough, bringing the story right up to date with the privileged white girl getting involved with the chauffeur (even if he’s black, as in this version) would not lead to the catastrophic ending in just one night; in fact no one would blink an eyelid, despite Julie stealing Jean from her only confidante, maid Kristina.

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Vanessa Kirby and Eric Kofi Abrefa

This production suffers from additional scenes set at the party, with dancing and drugging guests, which take up around ten minutes at the start of the play.  Much better to get straight into the meat of the play, with the neurotic Julie trying to break out on her birthday, to get away from the path which life has set for her.

Carrie Cracknell directs, and Tom Scutt designs, in a lighted box which only moves following the hard-hitting finale, the only bit which really connects on an emotional level through the whole play.  There is little sexual chemistry between Kirby and Abrefa, if anything he seems on the verge of being amused by her, but mainly bored.

The set, a kitchen suite into which cupboards the party-goers disappear, has potential (and reaches it, briefly, in the scene with the little bird), but doesn’t fit the sophisticated claustrophobia the original play requires, and which might have served Julie better in the Dorfman.

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The Lehman Trilogy (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

On paper this does not sound particularly promising – a saga of three brothers who move from Bavaria to America to make money by the creation of first a middleman business, then a bank.   A saga which runs for over three and a half hours, including two 15 minute intervals.

Eight years ago I saw Enron, the clever drama by Lucy Prebble about a corporate financial crisis.  Due to excellent performances and use of music, this was a fantastic show on a dull topic.  This is also true of The Lehman Trilogy (Three Brothers, Fathers and Sons, The Immortals), even more so as every single role is played by three actors at the top of their game – Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley.

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Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles (photo by Mark Douet)

Sam Mendes returns to stage directing, as Ben Power and the company have developed this rather special piece of theatre from an Italian play by Stefano Massini.  It starts in the mid-2000s with the collapse of the Lehman Corporation, but we are quickly pulled back to 1844 and the arrival in America of the newly renamed ‘Henry’ Lehman, his ambitions beginning with a small general store (beautifully described by Russell Beale as he gestures to glass walls and office storage boxes and conjures up rows of clothes, hats, ties, jackets and more; just as he described with words like pictures his long voyage between continents).

Surrounded by the plantations of the prosperous South of Montgomery, Alabama, Henry soon welcomes his brothers Emanuel and Mayer across the ocean, and opportunity quickly strikes when they expand to offering material needed by the overseers and owners, then trading in raw cotton itself following a fiery stroke of fate.  The expansion of the business in these years of growth is indicated by the movement from one small room to a larger one, each having a black marker sign written up by the actors; over the course of “Three Brothers” this will be utilised a lot, so we can see the past within the present as the saga progresses.

Henry dies, young, of yellow fever, and the Jewish brothers still steeped in their culture of home, grow their beards, shut themselves away, tear their clothing, and mourn – but time moves on, Mayer marries, then so does Emanuel (Babette and Pauline are depicted brilliantly by Russell Beale and Godley, with just a change of vocal pitch and characterisation).  Their motivation moves from doing good for their community to the movement and acquisition of money – the Civil War finally forcing an uproot to the prosperous shores of New York and the North.

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Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley (photo by Mark Douet)

“Fathers and Sons” brings in the next generation, the precocious Philip, who can recite every city his family does business with, and who has an eye for the railroads, and Herbert, who starts as a playful toddler and ends as the Governor of New York.  There are other children quickly enumerated but discarded from the narrative, which races through the last years of the 19th century, into the 20th, and up to the fateful day of the Wall Street Crash.

Philip has himself found a wife during this time, but in his analytical mind he only looks for the material advantages, as an amusing vignette demonstrates, as girls are assessed against his twenty-point list for the perfect mate.  He also gains an acquaintance who climbs as high as he does, the high wire artist (Russell Beale, again, who also plays the doddery Rabbi who fights on matters of Biblical doctrine with young Herbert) who topples from his perch the day the markets collapse.

“The Immortals” starts with the suicide of stockbrokers, and the cunning of the now mature Philip and his son, Bobbie, who invest in the future – first, transportation, then the movies and television. Bobbie likes the horses, and lives to win, even capturing the divorced Ruth Lamar, who sees the dollar signs within her new husband’s heart.  By the time the trading floors open under the custodianship of the uncouth Lew Glucksman (Miles, again), we are a long way from Henry Lehman’s fabrics and suits shop of a hundred years before.

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Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles (photo by Mark Douet)

It is a tribute to the three actors involved, and their director and set designer (Es Devlin) that they create this wide variety of characters without any costume changes, and with the use of a minimum of props – those office storage boxes and glass walls, a revolving set, some chairs and a table, a bunch of flowers, a marker pen.

There is a piano, which leads to one amusing scene courtesy of Russell Beale’s Babette miming to Beethoven, Mozart, and ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’.  There are squawling children who grow to run the Lehman empire when the last family member has been laid to rest (with no mourning, no tearing of clothes, or closing of business).  And, finally, we return to the boardroom at the closure of the Corporation on that last day.

A very funny, perceptive, engrossing and well-written piece, the play moves quickly and is never dull.  There is one wickedly amusing bit about progress and music which leads to the death of one of the characters, but got one of the best laughs of the afternoon.  Ultimately this is a family saga for which you might be advised to do some background reading (and the programme has a useful chronology and family tree), but don’t let that stop you going – if you can get a ticket!

The Lehman Trilogy runs until the 20th October 2018, in repertory.  Tickets have sold out, but some may become available through Friday Rush or Day Ticket schemes, please see https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-lehman-trilogy for more details.

 


Macbeth (Olivier, National Theatre)

Life is too short for a bad Shakespeare. Rufus Norris, artistic director at the National, returns to the Bard after a long sabbatical, and unwisely places this tight drama of power and ambition on an Olivier stage which drowns it.

Rory Kinnear as Macbeth, and Anne-Marie Duff as Lady M, are both actors who have excelled in previous stage productions here, but here both seem lost in the way Norris has chosen to direct them, even to the point of mangling the rhythm of the verse.

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There’s a lot of plastic in this production. Severed heads in supermarket bags. Cheap and dilapidated sets. Even the witches don’t gain a sense of horror or magic.

Good things – I like Stephen Boxer as Duncan, in his blood red suit. It’s always a difficult role to pull off as it is so small, but we had the measure of him, quickly.

Making Ross and the 2nd Murderer female was interesting – although the latter was dreadful – but making Fleance a girl was pointless, as she would not succeed to the throne and so was no threat to Macbeth, even with the prophecy of Banquo “fathering a line of kings”.

Removing Duncan’s younger son Donalbain removed the constant problem of what to do with him. He contributes very little – a previous production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse gave him learning difficulties, which at least allowed the character to be memorable. Here we just have Malcolm, but in Norris’s cuts and changes to the text, his big speech with Macduff disappears.

The royal palace of the Macbeths when they reign was as decayed as they were, with signs of a front-line military occupation, with the billycans of the banquet giving it the sense of a greasy spoon affair. The ghost’s appearance though was poorly thought out, and didn’t work.

Having dual casting with Seyton and the Porter gave a new dimension with the Porter’s comedy routine consisting of snatches of plot he has overheard, about the murder of the King – this gives him some power over his employers, but as this character isn’t well-developed enough, this isn’t as developed as it could have been.

I really didn’t like the mangled verse I have already mentioned – blank verse has its own music, so use it! And the drunken dancing on Duncan’s last night didn’t work for me.

This could have been so much better, but was yet another disappointing production from this particular director’s tenure. I would have liked to have seen an intimate production based in the Dorfman, perhaps, which got to the core of the characters.


Network (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

The 1976 film version of this is one of my all-time favourites, a biting, pulsing, black satire on the power of the media. This production, directed by Ivo van Hove, was obviously appealing from the word go.

Howard Beale is a news anchor. He’s losing ratings, losing patience, and losing his mind. When hard-nosed executive programmer Diana Christensen sees the opportunity to exploit his slide into madness to build an ‘angry prophet’ show around him, corporate monster Frank Hackett sees a way to chisel to the top of the tree at the network, pushing old-timer Max Schumaker out along the way.

The set is interesting, dominated by a huge video screen and flanked on each side by glass-walled offices, and what has been termed the ‘Foodwork’ experience, where diners pay up to £250 a head for a five-course meal, a ringside seat, and a bit of show interaction.

Casting is dominated by Bryan Cranston (‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Trumbo’) as Beale, and he’s terrific, at turns vulnerable, bravura, and simply ‘as mad as hell’. You may remember a social media call for people to film themselves saying that iconic line – here those videos pepper the wall to show the national reach of the News Hour.

Michelle Dockery brings a certain emotional blankness to the part of Diana, whether she’s pitching an idea, taking a phonecall, or having rushed intercourse with Max, unable to remove her attention away from work.

As Max, Douglas Henshall feels too young and far from the jaded drunk a lifetime with television has made him, and Tunji Kasim was totally inadequate as Hackett (a role with needs an actor with range, as Robert Duvall demonstrated in the film).

Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay has been cleverly adapted by Lee Hall, although some of the dubious and immoral politics have been filtered out, and the attempts to make the Lyttelton audience studio accomplices fell flat.

Ultimately, this plot remains presient considering how politicians have come to manipulate the media for their own ends, just as network boss Jensen (Richard Cordery) does here for the corporate good.

I enjoyed the staging which allowed both the screen and the ‘reality’ to be watched (and I’d recommend a circle seat for this). I couldn’t get invested enough in the characters, though, which makes this production flashy, stunning, but superficial.


Beginning (Dorfman, National Theatre)

As I type this up, a bit late as I saw last weekend’s matinee, it’s been confirmed that David Eldridge’s perceptive new play will transfer to the Ambassadors.

After seeing another two-hander, Heisenberg, recently, I found it interesting to compare the two, although Beginning takes place in real-time, in the early hours of the morning after Laura’s housewarming party in Crouch End (in ‘the pesto triangle’).

Danny has been left behind as his mates have picked up a taxi and he fancied another beer, and as it turns out, he might fancy the slightly prickly Laura as well. She in turn is up for sex but not really for anything long-term that includes Danny.

So the play ventures from believable awkward talk, to family revelations, the making of fish-finger sandwiches, a flat clean-up and an awkward bit of making out. 

As Laura, Justine Mitchell didn’t quite ring true for me, making me feel her stories of being an MD and of being in a ten-year long previous relationship a bit suspect.
Sam Troughton is more assured as the divorced Danny, who may well be telling tall tales himself to get into this lady’s knickers as quickly as he can – batting away her dreamy description of how the encounter might slowly pan out.

There is a minimal two-room set – table, sofa, beanbag, oven, cupboards. Music is provided before the curtain rises, with wine bottles setting the scene with a nightclub feel, and during one scene via iPod playlist.

The dialogue is sharp and balances cultural references (Strictly) with informal vulgar language. It presents these two people, either side of the cusp of forty, of anything but assured but fairly financially solvent.

Well worth watching, and although it might benefit from a slight trim, the Dorfman pit seats were comfy and there’s a working clock within the set so you can keep tabs on the play’s duration.


Follies (National Theatre, Olivier)

Stephen Sondheim’s bittersweet musical of theatreland gone by has its first major revival in London in years, and the book by James Goldman has now been returned fairly closely to the original plot, with the songs added for the 1987 revival dropped and the likes of ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ and ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ returned to their rightful place.

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The set is a depiction of the decayed and partly demolished Weissman Theatre, where the neon still works but the walls are crumbling, the seats are distressed, and the auditorium is ruined.  For me, the opening scene and prologue takes too long to introduce everyone, but that would be true of every version of this show, and it is certainly touching to see the mature showgirls descend the ‘staircase’ (in reality, a less-than-glamorous fire escape) one last time, while their younger selves move in ghostly sequins and sparkles in from the stage.

This show is very much about those ladies who graced the Weissman Follies between the two World Wars, and although we are more focused on the story of two of them – Sally (Imelda Staunton), and Phyllis (Janie Dee) – we still feel invested in the others, from Carlotta the movie star (Tracie Bennett, done up as Joan Crawford in stern red, and decaying from despair, drink, and dallying with young men who ‘mean nothing’), ageing opera diva Heidi (Josephine Barstow, whose delicate depiction of sad memories of an affair with the boss, Mr Weissman (Gary Raymond, who makes an sobering impact in a nothing part, as lost in time as his girls), is as touching as her faded soprano voice in ‘One Last Kiss’, a duet with her younger self, played by Alison Langer), to the much-married and knowing Hattie (Di Boutcher, who knocks ‘Broadway Baby’ out of the park from the moment she removes her glasses, but who is surely far too young for the part), and the rather sad Solange (Geraldine Fitzgerald, with her memories of ‘Paree’).

Staunton has shone in a couple of award-winning Sondheims already – from 2012’s glorious ‘Sweeney Todd’, to 2015’s ‘Gypsy‘.  Further back she was a stunning Miss Adelaide in ‘Guys and Dolls’, so she has the musical credentials, and as an Oscar Best Actress nominee for ‘Vera Drake’, she is also known as a talented actress.  Both skills serve her well as Sally Plummer, a tiny housewife with a salesman husband, Buddy (Peter Forbes), who is cheating on her, and dreams which have never died for her former lover, Ben (Philip Quast, always a favourite of mine, and I’m delighted to see him back in a leading role), who rejected her for her friend Phyllis (perhaps sensing she would be more acceptable material for a politician’s wife).

follies-national-theatre-r009Adam Rhys-Charles, Zizi Strallen, Philip Quast – rehearsal photo by Johan Persson

This Weissman reunion brings Sally and Ben back together for the first time in thirty years, and in ‘Don’t Look At Me’, Staunton attempts to make a connection which leads Ben to think back to the girl he used to know (Alex Young, who made such an impact in the ENO’s ‘Carousel‘ this summer, as Carrie, and previously in the New London’s ‘Show Boat’), and to look, for a moment, kindly on the disturbed and clingy woman she has become.  When Quast and Staunton duet in ‘Too Many Mornings’, there is a glorious blend of music, memories, and the magic of what could-have-been, however transient that feeling may be.  Staunton may be a little short, height-wise, for the pivotal kiss which she takes as a way out of her boring life with the Buddy she has ceased to see, but we do engage with their relationship from this point on.

Janie Dee’s Phyllis is the textbook example of a rich socialite whose life is totally empty, with a nice house bursting at the seams with ‘the Chagalls and all that’, but lacking love, attention, or the children she so desperately wanted.  She has grown so tired of life, that her ‘Would I Leave You’ is perfectly delivered and completely believable; theirs is a marriage of convenience that doesn’t even feel convenient anymore.  But yet, in the end, she is the one who shows the most strength, and who will, we feel, at least attempt to pick up the pieces.  Her younger shadow is played by the dazzling Zizi Strallen, who has the star quality and energy which must have turned the young Ben’s head while he and Buddy were ‘Waiting for the Girls Upstairs’.

follies-national-theatre-r007Liz Izen, Liz Ewing, Tracie Bennett, Imelda Staunton, Dawn Hope, Janie Dee, Julie Armstrong, Gemma Page – rehearsal photo by Johan Persson

Peter Forbes is Buddy, a salesman who is really no good, and who calls anywhere he lays his hat home.  His routine involves going out on the road to shack up with Margie, a bright young thing who idolises him (the character always makes me think of ‘Death of a Salesman’ and Willy Loman, who is stuck in a spiral of not quite reaching the American Dream), and then returning to Sally, who fantasises that in his eyes she’s ‘young and beautiful’.  Their marriage has children, but they have moved away to escape their mother’s neuroses and arguments, so you can imagine the echoes of their empty rooms where the boys once played and fought.

The last section of the show moves from the realism of the crumbling theatre of the past to a fantasy staging of ‘Loveland’, a sequence which I always find problematic, but which brings the young quartet to the fore (as well as Young and Strallen, the young Ben and Buddy are played well by Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig) before moving into the individual follies of each as they are now: Buddy, dealing with a drag depiction of his mixed love-life done in a vaudevillian style; Sally, in a blonde wig and a sumptuous dressing room, ‘losing her mind’; Phyllis, in old and young versions, doing as well as she can to tell us about Lucy and Jessie; and Ben’s Fred Astaire pastiche which collapses into an emotional breakdown.  Although I love ‘Losing My Mind’, and Staunton did it well, this whole sequence remains a problem, and as much as I admire Quast, and he did all he could with the number, the breakdown felt rushed to me, which may well have been a directorial mis-step.

What else?  Bennett channels Judy Garland (again, but beautifully) in the caustic ‘I’m Still Here’.  The mirror number ‘Who’s That Woman’ weirdly has the young chlorines not mirroring their older counterparts, and I felt in this case the Royal Albert Hall concert did this number better (although I did like Dawn Hope’s Stella, and the chance to see Liz Izen’s Deedee in the line-up).  Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah are fun, and poignant, as the Whitmans.

This may not be a perfect revival, but it is a great show, and it is rare to see something done on this scale, with so much love and energy – an emotional powerhouse, with eminently hummable tunes.

Do go, and also grab a copy of the fantastic programme, which is full of information, articles, and pictures and can be yours for just a fiver.

 

 


Amadeus (National Theatre, Olivier)

This production of Peter Shaffer’s play came to a close last night, but returns to the National in 2018, so don’t despair if you missed out this time.

The Oscar-winning film, made in 1984, might be the version most people know of this play, but that was considerably opened out with some plot points changed.  F Murray Abraham gained a Best Actor win for his performance as Salieri, the Court Composer who wished to remain as immortal as his professional foe, the childish yet supremely gifted Mozart.  Mozart himself was played by Tom Hulce, who gave the role a considered amount of pathos alongside the hyper crudeness of the man.

I mention all this because I rate the film as one of my all-time favourites.  I have seen the play performed before, at the Theatre Royal York, fourteen years ago, with Malcolm Rennie as Salieri and Daniel Hart as Mozart, in a production directed by Tim Luscombe.  Looking back now, it seems the press didn’t think much of it, and it was presented very much as an intimate monologue by a man well aware of his own mediocrity.

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The National’s revival, directed by Michael Longhurst, is a large-scale production which uses the Olivier’s drum revolve as an orchestra pit, presents dance versions of Mozart’s greatest pieces, and suffers from an absolutely ghastly performance from Adam Gillen as the precocious composer who crashes about, pouting, posturing, gurning, and lisping, throughout.  Some may argue this is the part ‘as written’ but it has no colour, no gradients, no balance, and as such is a fatal flaw in the play for me.  You may wish to laugh at Mozart or even cringe at his foul-mouthed excesses, but when the play turns tragic and the final scenes require pathos, I didn’t get any sense of it.

 

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Lucian Msamati plays Salieri, and, some curious accent choices aside (if you’re playing Italian you either play it throughout, or don’t bother), he is very good indeed, whether ingratiating himself with the audience, or raging at the God who has left him with the ambition to achieve fame, but has bestowed only an average talent, destined to be forgotten.

His ravings as an old man, wheelchair-bound, and stating that he killed the great composer Mozart, is not believed, and so in obscurity his name will remain.  I didn’t care for the modern-dress staging of the early scenes, where the orchestra (Southbank Sinfonia, who are wonderful) take selfies on their phones, and Salieri takes a pause to guzzle Krispy Kremes.

But the music – and the set staging for these pieces – can forgive a great deal and elevate a middling and long-winded production into something rather more.  You may agree with Tom Edden’s Joseph II, who complains that there are ‘too many words’, but I guarantee you will be moved by the Kyrie from the Requiem.


Lost Without Words (National Theatre)

On the look for something a bit different, I went to see ‘Lost Without Words’ yesterday evening.  It’s a co-production between the National Theatre and Improbable, a company who work heavily on improvised pieces.

In this case the actors are a group of veterans all over seventy.  Caroline Blakiston, Lynn Farleigh, Georgine Anderson, Anna Calder-Marshall, Tim Preece, and Charles Kay (although he did not appear last night).  They are gently prompted and given suggestions by the directors (Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott) who are on the stage, and there are additional people improvising lighting, sound, and musical accompaniments.

lostforwordsimageTim Preece, Anna Calder-Marshall, Caroline Blakiston, Lynn Farleigh.  Photo by Atri Banerjee.

I really liked it.  It ran for an hour and I think we had six different scenes.  The first was a mother and daughter at the beach, eating fish and chips, then swimming (Farleigh and Anderson did this one, with some nice work relating to Anderson’s reappearing walking stick).

Then a ‘game’ where the letter s could not be included, which was played as a father emigrating with work and his daughter worrying about it, with slips from both getting oohs from the audience (Preece and Calder-Marshall).  Following that a piece between two people who have lived together a long time but still find everything interesting, at breakfast (“Marmite toast!”), which turned out to be two sisters plus a ghostly visit from mum when one sister had gone for a lie down (Calder-Marshall and Blakiston, plus Farleigh at the end).

A piece where a couple trade wishes and have the last dance of their lives under a conveniently descending glitterball (Preece and Farleigh).  A group scene for a birthday which ended up hinting at cross-dressing and a lovely line about being allergic to rabbit skin (all five).  And a largely solo piece including a brokenly sung aria about love, with a ghostly husband visiting at the end (Blakiston, and briefly Preece).

It was a joy to watch this group of actors at work in a playful, funny, and ultimately touching piece about relationships, age, and dreams.  It is, apparently, totally unscripted, so there were prompts like “this is called Mum decides to swim for the first time”, “one of you says they feel tired and are going for a lie down, leaving this character alone”, “this is the last dance of their lives”, “you were singing something then and it was lovely, so let it come out”, etc.

It doesn’t feel forced or fake, and is beautifully performed.  I’m assuming each show is unique given the improvising aspect.

It plays until the 18th of March and if this sounds like your kind of thing, do check it out.


Twelfth Night (National Theatre)

Gender-bending in Shakespeare is nothing new.  We have had female Hamlets (Frances de La Tour, Maxine Peake), Lears (Kathryn Hunter, Glenda Jackson), Richard IIs (Fiona Shaw), Henry IVs (Harriet Walter), Prosperos (Helen Mirren), and even Horatios and Poloniuses on film.  Last year I saw a gender-flipped Taming of the Shrew with the male roles played by women, and the female roles by men.

Twelfth Night itself has been played by an all-male cast before, and here we have women playing the roles of Malvolia (Malvolio), Feste, and Fabia (Fabian), together with an obviously signposted gay Antonio (Adam Best – his suggested meeting place for Sebastian is a bar which has leather types and a Kinky Boots Lola-lite drag singer).   It gives a freshness to the story of the twins who believe each other lost at sea, and the choice of Viola to assume a male identity as one Cesario, in which guise both Olivia, and Orsino, fall in love with her.

tn1Tamsin Grieg and Doon Mackichan, image by Marc Brenner.

Tamsin Greig is top-billed as Malvolia, who spends most of the early part of the play as a Mrs Danvers-type of overbearing lesbian housekeeper, with a severe hairstyle which befits her station.  As the plot progresses we have a delicious piece of comedy with the letter scene, where she ends up cavorting in the garden’s fountain, a dark interlude where she is imprisoned and tortured by Sir Toby and cohorts, and a final reveal and climb during ‘The Wind and the Rain’.  Greig gives life to the often-thankless role of the steward, and we feel truly sorry for her at the end.

The set design of this production (Soutra Gilmour, James Farncombe, Christopher Shutt) is truly inspired, dominated by two staircases which move and morph, utilising the Olivier’s drum revolve beautifully, and by water features which appear and disappear (the fountain, a swimming pool into which Olivia hauls Cesario, and an eventual fall of rain).  The lighting and the sound are both excellent, from the chandelier which comes down to signpost an opulent living space, to the distant thump of the beatbox to which Toby and his drunken friends carouse while Malvolia watches Olivia sleep.

Orsino (Oliver Chris) is largely played for laughs, although his maturity is signposted by a 40th birthday party scene in which Viola/Cesario first realises her love for him (and he for her/him?).  Sir Toby (Tim McMullan) is a bawdy drunk, but not a Falstaff-like one – he cuts a fine dash in his swimming trunks and in a certain light might even be called attractive.  Sir Andrew (Daniel Rigby, who was so memorable as the young Eric Morecambe on television), is a hipster who shows both his active side (raucous dancing moves), and his softer side (hugging the teddy bear Orsino gave to Olivia at the bus stop in the closing scene of the play).

twelfth-night-2017-12Daniel Ezra and Adam Best, image by Marc Brenner.

Viola and Sebastian don’t really look like each other – she’s smaller and slighter – but Tamara Lawrence has a youthful swagger that might pass for a young man trying out his muscles, and Daniel Ezra does well in the scenes with Antonio, and where he recognises his thought-dead sister.  Phoebe Fox is a fine Olivia, nominally in mourning for her brother but given to boogieing when she thinks no one is looking, and her anger at the deception which has cruelly wronged Malvolia feels real.  Niky Wardley is Maria, with her nose and cheeks coloured by red lipstick in the drinking scene, and she’s good.

Imogen Doel is Fabia, Doon Mackichan has the tricky role of Feste, and although she has a great singing voice, the comedy of the part is lost (I don’t think the gender change is a successful one here).  Simon Godwin directs, and this adaptation goes on for three hours, but feels less.

I’d call it a definite success, which brings out the emotional heart of the play as well as the broad comedy underneath.

tn3Daniel Rigby and Niky Wardley, image by Marc Brenner.

Twelfth Night runs at the Olivier, National Theatre, until 13th May 2017.


Hedda Gabler (National Theatre)

Ibsen’s difficult late play comes to the National Theatre in a new version by Patrick Marber, directed by Ivo van Hove.  In a modern production, set in one white box, minimally furnished, and airless except for one window (adding to the oppression of the story), it begins with two figures already on stage, one sitting motionless on a chair to the side, and one playing the piano, occasionally flinging themselves forward on to the keys in frustration or despair.

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The former is the maid, Berte (Éva Magyar), who throughout the play is present, seeing everything along with the audience, but ignoring all just as she is largely ignored.  The latter is the titular Hedda Gabler (Ruth Wilson), newly married to academic Dr Tesman (Kyle Soller, here using his American accent rather than the one we have grown used to in his appearances as the doomed Francis Poldark on television) but bored and without purpose.

“Academics are no fun!” she whines, and even stapleguns flowers to the walls when she is particularly fed up.  Not for this new bride the glow of happiness – even the expensive house she now lives in is theirs purely through a quirk of fate, a caprice that made Tesman think she had “set her heart on it.”  She is trapped in circumstances she is powerless to change, in a cage from which she can not break free.

For Tesman’s part he can’t believe his luck, not just that the General’s daughter has chosen him, but that he has “special access” to her body.  This makes him just as unsympathetic a character as their supposed friend, Brack (Rafe Spall) who is a smooth but repellent sexual predator who, in the final few scenes of the play, defiles and abuses Hedda in a most appalling and shocking way, helped by an inspired use of prop design to provide the gore often missing from this play.

heddagabler

Hedda Gabler is a proud woman, but not in any way a nice one.  She torments her school friend, Mrs Elsted (Sinéad Matthews) and ruins her life, under the cloak of supposed kindness.  She goads the weak-willed career rival of her husband’s, Lovborg, her former lover, into desolation and destruction while fantasizing of the beauty of his “wearing vine leaves in his hair”.  She lies, cheats, manipulates, and destroys.  She is a viper in her words, too, hurting the kindly but interfering Tesman aunt (Kate Duchêne), and pushing away her devoted husband.

This production may rely too much on musical interludes (‘Blue’ by Joni Mitchell appears several times, and ‘Hallelujah’ the Leonard Cohen song, as rendered by Jeff Buckley – but clumsily edited – cuts into one scene), but its sparseness and the decision to stage much of the action on the fringes of the stage worked well for me, as it forces the eye to follow the characters as they separate or interact.  Entrances and exits are blurred, so we end up unsure as to the proportions of the room(s) we are viewing.  A video entry phone is the only concession to technology.

Marber’s adaptation may bring more laughs to the fore than the piece requires, but there is no denying the cumulative power of script, direction, and performance.  Wilson, Soller, Spall and Matthews are all excellent, with only Chukwudi Iwuji’s Lovborg missing that final note of mental disintegration that his fate would seemingly require.   Hedda’s final act may shock some, “People do not do such things”, but at least the events of this production are delivered in such a way that she clearly does not have a choice if she is not to spend her days in a living hell.

Image credit: Jan Versweyveld.


The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre)

This new translation of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill has been polarising audiences at the National Theatre, but it is a vibrant and lively production, entertaining and bawdy, and – some diction issues aside – a well-sung musical black comedy.  I’m pleased to report that Weill’s music has definitely stood the test of time.

Rory Kinnear (showing versatility with fairly successful vocal work) is Captain Macheath aka Mack the Knife, who carries round a large blade and dispatches people who cause him trouble.  He marries Polly Peachum (Rosalie Craig, last seen in the dreadful wonder.land, much better here) for her brains and to get one over on her gangster dad and her horny mum. But is his chequered past about to catch up with him?

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This production, by Rufus Norris, uses a translation by Simon Stephens which focuses on a run of profanity and the ‘filthy language’ promised in the National’s publicity, alongside the ‘immoral behaviour’ which includes Mackie and Polly making their first appearance in coitus which being lowered down from the flies on a crescent moon.

Brechtian theatre shows all the nuts and bolts of the stage, and this production doesn’t disappoint, with lights, ropes, and a busy set of steps, paper doors, and liberal use of the National’s drum revolve, all contributing to the overall effect.

There are some aspects of this musical that are muddled: Haydn Gwynne’s Mrs Peachum using a fire extinguisher to mimic vomiting after a heavy night, all of Sharon Small’s songs as heavily Scots-accented Jenny, some of the lyric changes, the gay angle, and Peachum’s wig, but they are generally overshadowed by successful innovations, including Paule Constable’s lighting design.

Debbie Kurup does well as a feisty and aggressive Lucy Brown, and George Ikediashi is a camp balladeer, but Peter de Jersey disappoints in the duet with Kinnear (‘A Soldier’s Return’) and I struggled with one of Mackie’s gang being severely disabled and almost played for laughs.

Edit: I would like to expand on my final sentence following a comment I have received on Twitter, specifically honing in on the fact I had a problem following the speech of the member of the cast with cerebral palsy (his name is Jamie Beddard, and he plays the member of Mackie’s gang called ‘The Shadow’).

The Telegraph’s review claims that this casting was inspired and makes the audience implicit in Macheath’s eventual frustration and mockery, but for me this didn’t work.  I was frustrated enough with not being able to follow the lyrics at times without having to decipher a speech impairment as well; nonetheless, Beddard did well and was particularly amusing in the black scene where Polly, the new bride, seems in danger of a nasty assault from the gang.

I am afraid, though, that I felt this particular piece of casting was a stunt which did not work in the context of the whole musical, and it weakened the fabric of a show which was already not entirely successful, by overbalancing scenes and musical numbers with an additional burden on an audience who were already dealing with an assault on the senses from the revised lyrics and situations, and could do nothing but react with uncomfortable laughter.  I hope this makes my comment clearer.

 


Young Chekhov: Platonov (National Theatre)

David Hare’s adaptations of Chekhov’s early plays is presented at the National Theatre as single plays as well as a day-long trilogy, but having seen both ‘Ivanov’ and ‘The Seagull’ before, I chose to go on Saturday morning to see ‘Platonov’.

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A difficult play to characterize, Chekhov wrote his first play in 1881 as a large-scale, eight-hour untitled piece, but it was never staged.  This is the play which eventually became came known as ‘Platonov” (as well as being adapted under titles as different as ‘Wild Honey’, ‘Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano’, ‘Firework on the James’, ‘Don Juan’ and ‘A Country Scandal’).  It was adapted for television under the present title, starring Rex Harrison, in 1971.

We meet the group who are the main characters in this drama in the garden of Anna Petrovna (Nina Sosanya), including doctor Nikolai and his wife Maria, his sister Sasha and her husband Platonov (interestingly only he is referred to by his last name from all the younger members of the group).  Anna’s stepson Sergei is bringing back his young bride, Sofya, but she and Platonov share a past.   In the meantime rich landowner Porfiri loves Anna and seeks her hand, but his feckless son Kiril has other ideas.

This play has moments of laugh out loud comedy, melodrama, financial skullduggery, adultery, and eventual tragedy, but the whole is an uneasy mix.  In the title role, James McArdle, in broad Scots accent, gives the role of a heel, a drunk and a rotter some humanity, although I found Olivia Vinall’s Sofya a little on the hysterical side.

As Anna, Nina Sosanya is graceful yet playful, and the rich man who wishes to call in his loans, Pavel, is played with gleeful malice by David Verrey.  Joshua James’ sniffy and sarcastic Nikolai is fun, while Jade Williams’ Sasha has the right mix of naive wife and distraught mother, and Nicholas Day’s red-faced Colonel is nicely comical.

Even though the programme states these plays are ‘new versions by David Hare, this particular adaptation of ‘Platonov’ was first staged in the West End in 2001.  This set of plays are directed by Jonathan Kent for the Chichester Festival, and running at the National Theatre into early October 2016.

 

 


Evening at the Talk House (National Theatre)

This is a world premiere of a new play by Wallace Shawn, who also stars in this 100 minute piece running at the Dorfman Theatre until April.

The set is that of a club called the Talk House, where the assorted characters in the play used to meet regularly ten years ago, when they were cast and crew members in a successful theatre production called ‘Midnight In a Clearing With Moon and Stars’.

In Bob’s lengthy opening monologue (which sets the tone for what is to follow, ponderous, over-explanatory and rather dull), we hear about how the reunion came to pass, and see each character being introduced – Nellie, Jane, Ted, Annette, Tom, Bill, and Dick, the gate crasher played by Shawn, the actor who has clearly fallen on hard times.

Soon it becomes apparent that this is not the world as we know it.  Theatre ‘no longer exists’ by state decree.  A ‘Programme of Murdering’ removes undesirables both abroad and closer to home.  Ordinary looking and sounding people talk of targeting and assassinating as if it is just a normal bodily function.  There is an air of menace hanging over proceedings …

… the trouble is, nothing happens other than 100 minutes of talk, which includes descriptions of murders of people we know nothing about, and constant ‘did you hear what happened to Y’ and ‘do you remember X’ just alienates an audience who simply does not care about the characters in front of them, let alone a parade of people off the set who simply do not matter.

I liked the way the set (by the Quay Brothers) and lighting design at least tried to conspire together to convey a sense of movement and transition in this play, but the writing stops it flat, despite the basic premise being quite an intriguing, if naïve, idea.  The contrast between the forced bonhomie of colleagues who probably never liked each other anyway with the beatings and killings in which they are regularly involved feels forced.

In the cast, apart from Shawn as the failed and battered actor, we have Anna Calder-Marshall as the kindly Nellie, the Talk House’s proprietress, .Josh Hamilton as sniffy Bob, Sinead Matthews as Jane the waitress turned assassin who longs for death, Joseph Mydell as the idealistic Bill, Naomi Wirthner as costume designer Annette who was everyone’s confidante and who now has a heart of ice, Stuart Milligan as Ted the on the surface nice guy, and Simon Shepherd as successful yet vacuous TV personality Tom.

Shawn is feted as one of America’s foremost dramatists, but even those with that status sometimes need to be reined in.  Alhough Ian Rickson does his best with direction, this play goes nowhere and does so at a funereal pace.  By the ending, which doesn’t really make much sense, we have stopped caring, which might explain the audience grumbling when the lights go down and the silence before the grudging applause.


wonder.land (National Theatre)

There’s something in the water on the Southbank.  It’s been 150 years since Charles Dodgson took up the name of Lewis Carroll and wrote ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’, vibrant, inventive and frankly mad novels which have puzzled and charmed children ever since.

Damon Albarn (formerly of Blur) has written the music for this new musical set squarely in the dot.com generation.  Lyrics, such as they are, for the songs are written by Moira Buffini, and direction is from Rufus Norris, the new incumbent as Artistic Director at the National Theatre.

A good pedigree, you might say, and with such a book as a springboard, could it really miss?  The trouble is, I don’t think it is mad enough – our heroine, Aly (Lois Chimimba) is a moody, mixed-race teenager with separated parents (her father is sort of the Mad Hatter as he has mental problems and, well, wears hats) and a baby brother who vomits over the stage.

Said baby brother is called Charlie which leads to a laboured act two song called, yes, ‘Everyone Loves Charlie’.  It’s about as far away from Jefferson Airplane’s druggily Alice inspired anthem ‘White Rabbit’ as you can get.

The other songs channel the Laughing Policeman, Chim Chim Cheree, and Knees Up Mother Brown, and where we have a bit of melody, such as avatar Alice singing about herself or the trippy and glittery green caterpillar asking ‘Who Are You’ in true Disney style, we are pulled up short and feel as if we have wandered into another show.

What plot there is centres on Aly entering the world of http://www.wonder.land, coaxed by the Cheshire Cat (Hal Fowler, who also plays the Caterpillar) in stunning digital graphics, of which I would have loved to have seen more.

She creates a Tenniel-perfect Alice as her alter ego (Carly Bawden) who starts off all fluffy and cute and then becomes an evil troll when turned into the Red Queen by the nasty and vicious headmistress Ms Manxome (see what they did there?  Manx.  Cat.  Ho.), played by Anna Francolini.  She’s fun, but too one-dimensional, and really, is someone evil because they want to stop a child playing on their phone during lessons?

In lip service to Carroll’s original, Dinah, Mary-Ann and Kitty are here transformed into bullies who torment Aly in the girls’ loos, while the Mock Turtle, Humpty, Dum and Dee and others are avatars her Alice encounters online.  They could be any characters, really, and the creators don’t seem to know what to do with them.

With special effects which seem set to disappoint – an early screen full of messages goes nowhere, and other opportunities are missed – poor songs, and a plot which tries to shoehorn in everything possible (including a gay guy and a zombie apocalypse), this show tries to dazzle but instead irritates.

It doesn’t fall into the ‘so bad it’s good’ camp.  It has no hummable tunes (but that’s sometimes OK, if the show is good enough).  It has some good costumes, and that Cheshire Cat animation is excellent, but it isn’t enough to save this from being a true Christmas turkey, despite the best efforts of its cast.

All glitter on the outside with nothing inside, I’m afraid.


Jane Eyre (National Theatre)

First presented in two parts in Bristol, this version now playing at the National Theatre has been reduced to a more manageable three and a quarter hours (including interval) in which to tell the story of Jane Eyre from birth to happy ending.  Topping and tailing the main story with the words ‘It’s a girl!’ makes this a strictly feminist reading of the novel on the surface, although the focus remains on the love story between the plain and insignificant Jane and her employer, the troubled Mr Rochester.

jane eyre

Playing Jane from childhood onwards, Madeleine Worrall is absolutely excellent, a wild haired dervish of a troubled girl whether crying out ‘unjust’ to her life, running on the spot to represent the journeys between Mrs Reed’s home and Lowood Institution, Lowood and Thornfield Hall, and climbing ladders within the set of wood and metal to show passages of place and time.  Rochester (Felix Hayes) does not overdo the bluster or sharpness of his role, instead finding a connection with his new governess and an opportunity to escape his desperate situation.

Craig Edwards has three roles – Mr Brocklehurst, Rochester’s dog Pilot, and Mason (brother to the shadowy Bertha Mason, who appears now and then in the person of Melanie Marshall’s singer who interjects ‘Mad About The Boy’ and ‘Crazy’ – the Gnarls Barkley one, not the Patsy Cline one – into proceedings), and he works hard, especially in the comic role of the faithful pet.

Other performers who deserve to be mentioned are Laura Elphinstone (Helen Burns, Adele, and a particularly sanctimonious St John Rivers), and Maggie Tierney (Mrs Reed and Mrs Fairfax), but the whole ensemble come together in a beautifully choreographed set of scenes, perfectly timed and probably testament to a long period of gestation and rehearsal.

Set pieces, too, work well in places – the cavernous grave which swallows Jane’s parents, her Uncle Reed, and Helen in quick succession as they leave her life, her Aunt Reed’s promise to bring up her baby niece as one of the family and then shaking the baby bundle with distain into the plain dress in which the young Jane is garbed, little more than a servant.

I do feel, however, that Sally Cookson’s production assumes a prior knowledge of the story that many audiences might not have, and that there are some bad decisions, including the aforementioned Bertha, who is too smooth and measured to represent a mad woman who burns, stabs and bites.  The one thing that made me cringe was Rochester’s descent from his horse in a flurry of f- words, which was unnecessary: this man is no gentleman and not worthy of Jane.  The book’s Rochester may have a certain brusqueness of tone but he would be unlikely to swear in the company of a woman; even that other Gothic hero, Heathcliff, never did that.

A Jane which perhaps fails to fully gel, could do with being cropped by around half an hour, but which nevertheless remains true to its source and its heroine, and ends up being effective and moving despite itself.


Three Days in the Country (National Theatre)

An afternoon at the Lyttleton, National Theatre, where we find Patrick Marber’s new version of the lengthy Turgenev play ‘A Month in the Country’, now around half the length and retitled ‘Three Days in the Country’.

This production, with a minimalist set (painted backdrop of trees etc, and red doors leading nowhere), has the accent on comedy with the best performance coming from Mark Gatiss as the doctor who is a ‘maestro of misdiagnosis’ with a dodgy back.  His proposal to a disinterested Lizaveta (Debra Gillett) is most amusing.

At this performance Amanda Drew, who plays Natayla, was indisposed, so her understudy Cassie Raine stepped in and was very good in what is perhaps the key role of the play, the wife who seeks distraction from a stale marriage to the rich Arkady (John Light) who has stopped seeing her rich qualities as his partner in life.  On the fringes is their longtime friend Rakitin (john Simm), hopelessly in love with Natayla but finding his attentions unrequited.  Simm, to me, was too over the top and lacking a sense of the tragic, which was a shame.

Natayla is in love, though, with the young tutor Belyaev (Royce Pierreson), a man who seems rather fickle as we see him flirting with the maid Katya (Cherrelle Skeete) while leading on the young Vera (Lily Sacofsky), ward to Arkady and Natayla.  Sensing a rival for the youth she craves, Natayla plots Vera’s marriage to an old neighbour, Bolshintsov (Nigel Betts) to remove the girl from her house.

Rounding out this rich cast are Lynn Farleigh and Gawn Grainger, and the whole ensemble works well together, presenting an entertaining two hours which punctuates laughs with moments of emotional pathos and Russian songs.  Marber directs as well as writes with a sure hand, and the design work of Mark Thompson and Neil Austin is well worth a mention.


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