Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is a notoriously complex and difficult piece to stage, and rarely revived. In Peter Gynt, veteran playwright David Hare has taken the Norwegian classic as inspiration to create a new play, starring James McArdle as the titular hero.
Across three acts and two intervals, we watch Peter’s trajectory as he returns home to Scotland from conflict, is made an outcast from his village, becomes a wealthy arms dealer, survives a plane crash, finds himself in an asylum, and finally, wrecked at sea and back where he started.
The stage design by Cara Newman with high-up doors, a grassy plain, a precarious ramp, and more, takes the story to Florida and Africa. The complexity of set changes requires the two breaks which take the running time to over three hours, but the production is never a bore.
The story requires a large and diverse cast, of which Guy Henry is a particular stand-out as a French trader who even sings a bit, as well as a strange grotesque with a death obsession. In what amounts to an extended cameo at the end, Oliver Ford Davies commands the stage as the button moulder, who collects the souls of those who made no impact in life.
Peter Gynt is the story of the rise and fall of a fantasist (he describes his life as a series of film scenes and plots) who sees himself as heroic, but who ultimately fails to “be himself”. McArdle catches the spirit of the cocky soldier, the irresponsible money machine, and the broken philosopher perfectly, and is riveting to watch as the play progresses.
The decision to include songs is a little hit and miss: a dream sequence with horny cowgirls works well, but a solo from Gynt’s lost love in her bookshop store feels misplaced. The dream aspects of the play are agreeably odd – the troll supper, and the asylum coronation, on a tower of blood-red chairs.
Less successful are the thinly-veiled caricatures of Donald Trump on his golf course, and David Cameron “chillaxing”: much better are the scenes where Gynt tells his dying mother a story, or where he faces his own mortality.
Peter Gynt continues at the Olivier, National Theatre. Photo credits Manuel Harlan.
Given the fact that the National Theatre’s next season has few female writers, it is good to see this revival of Githa Sowerby’s 1912 family drama, set in the industrial North Country.
The Rutherfords are the wealthiest family in the town, factory owners and major employers. Mr Rutherford (Roger Allam) is a widower with three grown children: Richard (Harry Hepple), a curate; Janet (Justine Mitchell), a spinster of 36; and John (Sam Troughton), a nervous consumptive who married low and has a sickly baby son.
With them live Miss Rutherford (Barbara Marten), a moral force of repression, and maid Susan – never seen. Mr Rutherford’s right-hand man at work is Martin (Joe Armstrong), with a quarter-century of service, a plain man who holds his place in high regard.
At the opening of the play there’s heavy rain across the drab setting of the Rutherfords’ dining room cum office. Mary (Anjana Vasan), five years married to John and three months resident in the house, is still a stranger there.
Mr Rutherford, referred to by his son as “The Guvnor” rules his house with terror and bullying, repressing his daughter and mocking his sons, while maintaining the family business is destined for John. When John reveals he has developed a new formula to revolutionise the glass-works, father sets a downward spiral in motion.
With a haunting choir of six (oddly only four are credited in the programme), the scenes are set and bookended by quaintly chosen folk songs, and at the close of the second half the National’s revolve comes into play to good effect as the next heir to Rutherford’s fortune becomes the sole focus of attention.
Sowerby’s prose, inspired by first-hand experience, still feels fresh and relevant today, with themes of family, love, ambition, and business tricks. It’s a knowing portrait of a family whose head sees as above all others, but whose children feel awkward in their privilege.
It’s telling that the business passes purely through the male line – at no point was Janet, bright, independent and resolute (“when I take off your boots, I wish you dead”) ever considered, nor was her aunt before her. And it is the strength of a woman which ultimately saves the family line through a detached business deal. No room for sentiment in these dark times.
Directed by Polly Findlay, and designed in a style evocative of the period by Lizzie Clachan, Rutherford and Son is a classy revival of a modern classic.
Currently running at 2hr 45 with one interval after 55 minutes, this play at no time feels forced or dragged out. It would be interesting to see Sowerby’s other work revived for a new audience.
Rutherford and Son opens at the National Theatre on 28 May.
Caryl Churchill’s play has always fascinated me, but this is the first stage production I have managed to see, in Lyndsey Turner’s fine revival.
The opening act introduces us to Marlene (Katherine Kingsley) on the eve of her promotion to MD of a recruitment agency; to celebrate, she hosts a dinner in a restaurant with five strong women from the past – Pope Joan, Patient Griselda, Dull Gret, Lady Nijo and Isabella Bird.
All have their own stories to tell about survival in a world that favours men, and in particular about matters relating to love and motherhood.
Act two focuses on young Angie, who is young for her age and who dreams of killing her mum, Joyce, and running away to London to be with her aunty (Marlene).
She runs away and finds herself in the busy agency, where women are discouraged from talking about marriage plans, presented as successful only if they behave like men or are pushy, and where the values of “men first” still find a voice in the wife of the man who lost out on the MD promotion; she feels he should have the job by right as he is a family provider.
Finally, after a curiously placed interval, act three goes back a year to reveal secrets and conflicts between Marlene, her sister Joyce, and young Angie, who are worlds apart in drive, ambition and politics. Marlene epitomises the new Thatcherite woman, each for themselves – “if someone is stupid, lazy or frightened, why should I help them get a job?”. Joyce sees the reality of the woman trapped by cirumstance.
Top Girls should not have contemporary relevance, but it does, and despite those historical figures all women can aspire to, in many ways high achievers like Marlene are still the exception and regarded as suspect.
With a set by Ian McNeil which ranges from a beautifully detailed 80s kitchen and high powered office to a claustrophobic back yard, Top Girls boasts a contemporary soundtrack and some excellent performances from a wide cast which does not rely on Churchill’s traditional doubling-up of roles.
Aside from Kingsley, I particularly enjoyed Amanda Lawrence’s matter-of-fact Pope (“I never lived as a woman”), Lucy Black’s quietly resentful but tough Joyce, Wendy Kweh’s egotistical Nijo, Liv Hill’s damaged Angie, and Amanda Hadingue’s brittle Louise (who seeks a change after 21 years in the same male-dominated office).
So many details leapt out to me – the pursuit of money, the poor families who cooled their milk in a dish of cold water, the disregard for children across time, the battle each woman faces and has always faced for success.
Churchill’s overlapping dialogue and parallels between history and contemporary mores remains clever, and although I might have preferred a more even split between the show before and after the interval, this play retains its quiet power and purpose.
Top Girls continues at the National Theatre. Photo credits: Johan Persson.
The award-winning stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel is in its final weeks in the West End, doubtless making plenty of money for the National Theatre, where it originated in 2012.
Christopher Boone (Sam Newton) is a fifteen year old boy on the autism spectrum, a maths genius who finds it hard to function with the chat and metaphors of daily life.
In our glimpse into Christopher’s world, we see and hear how overwhelming everyday activities are to him (act two’s train and tube journey’s are especially evocative).
His father (Stuart Laing) struggles to cope with his clever and challenging child, sometimes overboiling with frustration he instantly regrets. His decision to tell a catastrophic lie leads to the events which close the first half (as sounds, lights, collapsing numbers and falling letters contribute to the boy’s reaction to a shock), and into the adventures of act two.
Newton, adaptor Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott create a powerful and believable depiction of the complexities of autism, with a cohesive balance between the comic perception of everyday statements (“the apple of his eye”) and the pathos of emotional attachments (father, mother, neighbour’s dog. pet rat, new puppy).
The supporting cast are uniformly good – Emma Beattie as the mother who couldn’t cope stood out, but I must note them all. (Sadly the lack of a programme leads me to struggle a bit to assign names to roles).
Bunny Christie’s set is a box which displays material drawn on the floor and generated text and adverts, and utilises hidden doors and storage space very well, plus an inspired use of the front of the stage as a platform on the London Underground.
The technical wizardry on display has rightly gained plaudits but ultimately this is a show with heart, starting with that curious incident of the dog and the garden fork, and ending with a post-curtain call maths equation.
John Donnelly’s new translation of Molière’s classic 17th century satire shoehorns in contemporary references and profanity, and sets the action in wealthy Highgate, but falls short of truly capturing the spirit of either farce or barbed social commentary.
Tartuffe is the story of a well-heeled family man, Orgon, who finds meaning in life when he meets a vagrant who seems to have religious purity and an insight into his soul: in fact, he has met a trickster who means to alienate his children, seduce his wife, and relieve him of home and fortune.
Despite a clever set by Robert Jones which has numerous hiding places for an underused cast, it takes a long time for us to get the measure of the piece and the atmosphere Donnelly and director Blanche McIntyre are trying to create. References to Russell Brand and resting actors who are happy to act as cut-throat murderers when they are not “in Holby” feel forced, and the contemporary setting loses something of the power of the original play.
Susan Engel’s matriarch encountering the nude champagne socialist poet gives initial amusement, but Kevin Doyle’s Orgon comes across as foolish and blinkered from the start, and Denis O’Hare’s Tartuffe is a comic creation who seems to sit awkwardly in a discussion of 21st century money problems (although I loved some of his comedy routines in the broad sense, dropping trousers and wrangling with ladies’ underwear).
Much better is the shorter second half, in which whiny and pampered Mariane (Kitty Archer) weighs up the ills of marriage for convenience against the need to go out and work, and Tartuffe and Elmire (Olivia Williams) engage in a pantomime for the benefit of the blinkered husband.
However, I disliked the ending which seemed to wander into a realm where it is OK to cheat, connive and corrupt if you’re rich, despite the final speech in which the homeless crowd the stage and seem to ask for our empathy.
Tartuffe continues at the National Theatre, having just announced additional performances.
Welcome to the second instalment of The Mix, in which I’ll look at some of the things in London theatre which have caught my eye.
A is for Admissions
Alex Kingston stars in Joshua Harmon’s new comedy at the Trafalgar Studios, where it runs until 25 May, after which it has a run at Richmond Theatre until 1 Jun.
Described as a “bold new comedy” this both takes a knock at the status quo and, timely enough, reflects some of the corruption going on overseas over fixed university and school places. I will be reporting back from this show soon. For information see https://trafalgarentertainment.com/shows/admissions/
B is for Bunker and Boulevard
The Bunker Theatre was converted from an underground car park into an ambitious, artist-led space with two resident companies, Damsel Productions and Pint-Sized. Now in its third season, The Bunker presents an interesting mix of productions in an eclectic space underneath the Menier Chocolate Factory. I’ll be visiting to see Funeral Flowers later in the year.
The Boulevard Theatre has been announced as Soho’s newest playhouse, due to open in autumn 2019. Built on the site of the legendary Raymond’s Revuebar, this vibrant arts venue will host theatre, comedy, cabaret, music, film and literature with a seated capacity of 165.
C is for the Canal Cafe
The Canal Cafe Theatre celebrates its 40th birthday this year. Based on the edge of the Regent’s Canal, above the Bridge House Pub, the 60 seat theatre (arranged as table seating) presents comedy and drama, and helped to launch acts such as Miranda Hart and the League of Gentlemen. It is the home of the NewsRevue, the world’s longest running comedy show.
Mobile phones, takeaways, sing-alongs, photography, heckling, late comers, drunk audience members, coughing, noisy sweet wrappers, putting drinks or bags or yourself on the stage, you name it. It’s a tough old world out there and theatre is a nice escape for many of us, so if you’re guilty of any of the items in the list: just stop!
A few things you may want to bear in mind if you want to be a model audience member – put your phone away (switched off) during the performance, keep your singing in your own head, don’t snap pics, don’t interrupt or talk, don’t stagger in late, don’t stagger in drunk, suck a cough sweet and sip on a bottle of water (or if you’re coughing badly, stay at home in bed), bring loose sweets only, respect the performers’ space even if it is just literally that rather than a conventional stage.
Simple, isn’t it?
F is for Frozen
If you’d been on the Theatre Royal Drury Lane backstage tours last year just before the theatre closed for renevation, you will have known that Frozen was set to be the first new show on re-opening in autumn 2020, but it is now official, and you can sign up for information and pre-sale of tickets. No news yet on whether any of the Broadway cast will transfer with the show but you can read the rave review of the New York production at https://www.newyorktheatreguide.com/reviews/review-of-disneys-frozen-on-broadway
The film of Frozen is the highest grossing animated film of all time, and the stage production, directed by Michael Grandage, has already won a Tony Award nomination for best new musical. The Drury Lane production will feature set and costume design by Christoper Oram, lighting design by Natasha Katz, choreography by Rob Ashford.
G is for Groan Ups
Mischief Theatre (The Play That Goes Wrong, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery) have announced their new show, set to open at the Vaudeville Theatre in September 2019. Groan Ups is a brand-new comedy about growing-up, asking whether we are really that different at 30 than at 13, this is being pitched as “a lesson not to be skipped”.
The Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester is proving to be a rich source of musicals transferring into the capital, with Pippin, Aspects of Love, Yank, and Hair.
Based in Ancoats, the company is a joint venture for creative couple William Wheldon and Joseph Houston, and producer Katy Lipson. Together they are Hope Aria and their current musical project is Rags.
Over at the Hope Theatre in Islington, a new production is underway. Thrill Me: the Leopold and Loeb Story centres on the murder popularised in the Hitchcock film Rope, this time made into a musical by Stephen Dolginoff. The show runs from 2-20 April. More information at http://www.thehopetheatre.com/
I is for the Iris Theatre
The Iris Theatre is one of London’s award winning theatre companies, performing each summer in the grounds of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden (known as the ‘Actors Church’).
This year’s summer season runs from 19 June-1 Sept and comprises Hamlet and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If the classics don’t appeal, try a ticket for a new musical Parenthood runs on the 3 May or Cleopatra runs on the 11 May.
Approaching its 30th anniversary in a former Barclays Bank branch in Camden, this ecletic nightspot offers a wide range of music and dance events. For listings and information visit https://thejazzcafelondon.com/
K is for Katzpace
Katzpace is a new 50 seat theatre based at London Bridge, under the German Bierkeller. Billed as “London’s coolest theatre” it showcases theatre and comedy with an edgy and intelligent feel, hosting scratch nights, queer theatre, improv and more.
At the start of April it becomes on of the venues for the 2019 London Pub Theatre Festival. Its resident theatre company, Exploding Whale Theatre, is made up of recent graduates. Keep an eye on the venue and its work at https://www.katzpace.co.uk/whats-on
L is for LIVR
LIVR merges live performance, streaming and virtual reality to provide access to theatrical experiences via a mobile phone and a headset. It is the first VR platform dedicated to theatre, to offer “the best seat in the house without leaving the house”.
With a monthly subscription and a growing library of content, this may revolutionise how we access our theatre spaces and productions. I hope to offer a full feature on how this works later in the year.
Over at the Finborough Theatre, musical Maggie May is enjoying a revival in its first London production in half a century. Lionel Bart’s show is a hard-hitting celebration of working-class life on Merseyside and runs to the 20 April. It also commemerates the 20th anniversary of Bart’s death.
The National has announced its new season and it is entirely made up of male playwrights, which is a little disappointing. However, I will be attending to see Hansard, featuring Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan, and I am intrigued by their new musical show for children and the young at heart, Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear.
The Open Air Theatre in Regents Park is often a martyr to the English weather, but unfailingly presents a summer season to shout about. This year the American perennial Our Town goes shoulder to shoulder with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while musical and opera fans are served by revivals of Evita and the ENO’s Hansel and Gretel.
London is chock-full of pub theatres, intimate and exciting spaces which generate new work and give a sideways slant on old favourites. They often have left-field or evocative names – The Hen and Chickens, Etcetera, Tabard, Katzpace, Bread and Roses. They may be small, but they are an essential part of London’s theatreland.
London’s theatreland is a safe and energising space for LGBTQ+ shows, with venues such as Above the Stag, the King’s Head, Soho Theatre, Hackney Showroom, Arcola Theatre, Park Theatre, The Glory, The Yard, Camden People’s Theatre, and more showcasing new writing, queer seasons, or even entire programming with the rainbow flag prominently in focus, the metropolis can certainly hold its head up with pride.
R is for the Rose
The Rose Theatre in Kingston upon Thames celebrated its tenth birthday last year and shows no signs of slowing down. As well as some excellent upcoming shows including Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and The Snow Queen, the theatre now has an Emerging Artists Fellowship in honour of its founder, Sir Peter Hall.
There is also a second Rose in London, the Rose Playhouse on Bankside. Billed as “Bankside’s first Tudor theatre”, this was the site of the Save The Rose campaign in 1989, and what has since been uncovered enjoys English Heritage Scheduled Monument status. Events taken place regularly, and there is a 30th anniversary gala planned in May. The Rose is still in desperate need of support – visit http://www.roseplayhouse.org.uk/experience/events/ to find out more.
S is for Shapeshifting
If you move quickly and get across to the Barbican Centre you can catch Cillian Murphy’s astonishingly physical and visceral performance as the Crow in Grief is the Thing With Feathers, which runs until 13 April. It’s sold out, but returns might be available on the day.
T is for Tributes
Over in Clapham rehearsals are underway for Tony’s Last Tape, a transfer from Nottingham in which Philip Bretherton plays Tony Benn, at the Omnibus Theatre. Presented by Excavate, this is based on the diaries of one of Britain’s seminal and most divisive politicians, and is accompanied by an exhibition – Tracey Moberley’s audio diaries of Tony Benn.
It’s British Summer Time so it must be time for return of the Underbelly Festival at the South Bank. Running from 5 April-29 September 2019, you can enjoy family-focused shows, comedy, cabaret, and the circus across 31 seperate shows. Now in its 11th year, there is also a large outdoor bar, street food, and a truly festival atmosphere with shows which are short (less than an hour), cheap (less than £20), and cheerful.
V is for Violet and Vincent River
Two shows to highlight this month.
At the Charing Cross, Jeanine Tesori’s musical Violet continues until the 6 April. This award-winning tearjerker set on a greyhound bus and its environs benefits from an excellent set and some very good performances.
Meanwhile, over at the Trafalgar Studios 2, Vincent River is a one-act play focusing on hate crime in Dagenham. It previously ran at the Hampstead Theatre in 200, and in the West End in 2007. It plays from the 16 May-22 June.
W is for Wembley and White City
New theatres are always worth celebration, and the first of two promised Troubadour Theatres opens in June, at Wembley Park, on the site of the former Fountain Studios. The inaugural productions are Dinosaur World Live and a stop-off for the tour of War Horse. The second Troubadour is due to open in White City, on former BBC Media Village land, later in the year, with two flexible spaces of 1,200 and 800 seats respectively. For more information see https://www.troubadourtheatres.com/
X is for King’s Cross (X)
In the vicinity of King’s Cross Station are a variety of fine performance spaces.
The Shaw Theatre is situated next to the British Library and has a programme of dance, musical theatre, drama and talks. They have recently made their My Fair Lady rehearsal space available for hire.
The Platform Theatre on Handyside St is part of Central St Martins at the University of the Arts and comprises four performance spaces and a bar.
King’s Place on York Way is described as ‘a hub for music, art, dialogue and food’.
Y is for the Yard
The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick aims to make “theatre about our world, today”. Around the corner from Hackney Wick Station in Queen’s Yard, this fully accessible space also boasts a bar and kitchen. Their current production, running to the 11 May, is a revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which for the first time has a female actor playing John Proctor. I’ll be reporting back from this show in April – for information and booking go to https://theyardtheatre.co.uk/theatre/events/the-crucible/
Z is for Z Hotels
Finally, if all the excitement leads you to want a place to lay your weary head, try the compact rooms of one of London’s Z hotels. With eight to choose from across the capital, and two more coming soon, this could be an affordable option for those of you travelling for your theatre fix.
Martin Crimp’s new and challenging play came to the National in a flurry of fuss, with Cate Blanchett choosing to make her debut there rather than playing Margo Channing in All About Eve in the West End.
Tickets were available by ballot and day seating, and reviews decidedly mixed, but with one more week to run, is this play worth the bother?
Blanchett and Stephen Dillane play Woman and Man, who enter a garage in maid’s outfits and fishnets, with four observers, sticky tape across their mouths, changing clothes in dark corners.
Are they a couple? It isn’t clear. At first, as they clamber into a car and start their verbal roleplay (with awkward handheld microphones to amplify their chat), the effect is cringeworthy, as he entones that she ‘is a child’ and he ‘has the power’.
As both play with gender role and Dom-sub roles, dressing and undressing and assuming different vocal tones and power balances, the play warms up. He slices a scalpel across her forehead and slaps a bit of exposed bottom. She crawls for cherries and makes comments like ‘I’d rather be raped than bored’, which is later said by him.
There’s sex play of various types, in the car, against it, commanding an observer to finger her, the brief but infamous strap-on scene, the perfunctory penetration while family matters, real or imagined, are discussed.
The role play feels a lot more Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf than Pamela, and the fat jokes aimed at Jessica Gunning’s Mrs Jewkes feel unnecessarily cruel. This couple are unequal as Blanchett slides into her dominance just as easily as she does into Dillane’s suit and psyche.
He may slather his face with lipstick as she lathers hers with shaving cream, but she is the one with the sexual upper hand.
Both are hot and attractive, and there is magnetic chemistry here, but I didn’t believe her kitten voice or her hand under Dillane’s foot for a second. Watch as he puts the final touches to her bridal dress and shoes, and when she teases the boy Ross into danger.
For all the blood, sex and low-key abuse, is this shocking? Not really. It’s consensual non-consent for the masses. She sprays ‘child’ on the car windscreen in foam, but it doesn’t take much for him to turn on the wipers to obliterate it. The ‘girls’ could be much more central, but they flutter on the periphery, no matter.
When the doors are unlocked and the visitors have left, she and he will make the tea, maybe, and feed the cat. Or go to their own houses and mundane lives, having had their furtive little knee-tremble. So furtive he can’t even enjoy putting on her stockings, as Jewkes does that before getting the kiss she’s sought.
Never boring, exactly, there’s nothing here to frighten the horses. Katie Mitchell’s direction seems to have got the best out of her actors, but go to a fetish club or find other plays like Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking for real shocks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Adam 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’.
Liz 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tim 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.
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.
Tamsin 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).
Daniel 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.
Daniel Rigby and Niky Wardley, image by Marc Brenner.
Twelfth Night runs at the Olivier, National Theatre, until 13th May 2017.