Two Ladies (Bridge Theatre)

A rather unusual new play from Nancy Harris focuses on two First Ladies, the power behind a pair of warmongering presidents.

Zoe Wanamaker in Two Ladies
Zoe Wanamaker in Two Ladies

A dark and delicious black comedy, Two Ladies may have unlikely plotlines and ridiculous coincidences which pile on top of each other with great predictability, but the script is well-paced and gives excellent scope to both Zoe Wanamaker and Zrinka Cvitesic as the wives of the presidents of France and the USA, respectively.

Life has a habit of paying back: Cvitsec’s Sophia has a serious tale to tell about the behaviour of men in times of conflict, and understands that as a former model “from the wrong part of Europe”, she is simply a trophy for her older husband, who never speaks to her when they are alone.

Displaying nerves of steel from the first time we see her, white dress splashed with blood through to the resolution to “wait” at the end, Sophia is an enigma who starts out to needle Wanamaker’s Helen but ends the play as an ally. Theirs is the sweet revenge of women scorned and discarded.

Helen herself is much older than her husband, who as a teenage boy had tempted her from a dull marriage and “a teenage daughter not much younger than he was”. She’s guided and built her husband up in love and faith, and he looks about to betray her professionally and personally.

She is full of ennui with the mechanics of the committee, and clearly looks down on the woman she sees as an uneducated social climber, unfit for her position. Neither woman refers to the other by name at any point.

Zrinka Cvitsec and Zoe Wanamaker in Two Ladies
Zrinka Cvitsec and Zoe Wanamaker in Two Ladies

Anna Fleischle’s design is an offset box, a locked-down anteroom with a window to watch the world outside through, and frosted windows within the building to hide the business of state from those “elected by their husbands”, the “most photographed women in the world”.

It may be tempting to draw parallels with the wives of Macron and Trump, but these seem simple jumping-off points for a more complex portrait of power within power. I would have welcomed some clarity about Sophia’s husband, though – I left thinking he was president of Russia or similar, not the leader of the free world.

There are three supporting characters of note – the French president’s aide, George, the brash American reporter, the willing accomplice with her bucket of water, soap and brushes. They are all needed, but this is very much the Two Ladies show, and both shine under director Nick Hytner’s expert guidance.

Two Ladies continues at the Bridge until tomorrow.


Alys, Always (Bridge Theatre)

A brand new play by Lucinda Coxon, Alys, Always takes Harriet Lane’s psychological thriller about quiet, mousey Frances, subeditor on newspaper “The Questioner” (which has a header typeface suspiciously like The Guardian) and brings it to the Bridge Theatre.

Joanne Froggatt is on stage first, as Frances, re-living an accident in which she was involved on the way back from her parents’ house at Christmas. She lets an Audi overtake, then sees the aftermath of it skidding and crashing, talking to the occupant Alys (“with a y”) until the ambulance arrives. This one event will change Frances’ life completely, as she slowly moves out of the shadows.

Robert Glenister and Joanne Froggatt. Photo by Helen Maybanks
Robert Glenister and Joanne Froggatt. Photo by Helen Maybanks

She’s invisible in the office, and invisible in her looks – book review editor Mary (Sylvestra Le Touzel), editor Robin (Jeff Rawle), reviewer Oliver (Simon Manyonda) hardly regard her except in the spirit of “let Frances do it”. But when Laurence Kyte’s new book comes in, and his family tragedy becomes linked with Frances, her fortunes turn. She was the last to talk to his wife, Alys, and the family want to know more.

The Kytes are a well-heeled family of privilege. Writer dad (Robert Glenister), depressive son Teddy (Sam Woolf), drunken daughter Polly (Leah Gayer). Polly, emotionally unstable and selfish, senses a friend of sorts, the kind you can unload yourself upon. Frances starts to take what she can back, a lipstick, some shoes, things that “won’t be missed”.

Joanne Froggatt. Photo by Helen Maybanks
Joanne Froggatt. Photo by Helen Maybanks

Just like Eve in All About Eve, this new friend, quiet and helpful, starts to ingratiate herself into the lives of this family she knew nothing about, and a slow and subtle physical transformation starts to take place: her hair, her clothes. The daughter, then the father, come to rely on her and trust her. The family friend (Joanna David), too, who has known Laurence since he was a boy, even before Alys. Even the son comes to like her.

In the office Mary, efficient and officious, starts to favour Frances when she senses a story opportunity, and pushes Oliver, too sure of himself, too cocky, (he”parks on Pratt Street”) out. Frances becomes as indispensible here at The Questioner as she does at the Kytes’ London and country homes, reading up about the garden Alys loved, using her recipes, rifling through her personal and intimate belongings.

Maddie Cutter on cello and Joanne Froggatt. Photo by Helen Maybanks
Maddie Cutter on cello and Joanne Froggatt. Photo by Helen Maybanks

“The sense of possibility” from one little white lie. Getting Laurence to cry at Robin’s request is easy, and staying when he asks her to is easier. But Frances is a coiled spring under her calm exterior; a “cashmere” present doesn’t look good when it is only 5% against Alys’ posh pashmina; her parents love her sister’s “Prosecco flavoured crisps”.

This is a slow-burning thriller with tinges of black comedy, where we never know what Frances will do next, and yet are still appalled by her behaviour and her opportunism while willing her on all the same.

A very clever set by Bob Crowley backed by projections designed by Luke Halls to give a sense of place uses the Bridge’s thrust stage to great advantage, with scene changes achieved very quickly and effectively (although from a side seat on Gallery 3 I didn’t quite get the full sense of the video).

Nicholas Hytner directs, and he’s opened out this play yet kept it so tight that even the mis-steps (one key scene in the dark, scenes with Frances’ parents, and the crash itself) are easily overlooked in favour of the scenes which work well to keep the twists and turns moving.

Alys, Always continues at the Bridge Theatre until the 30th March, More details at

The Hard Problem (National Theatre)


Tom Stoppard’s new play for nearly a decade is also Nicholas Hytner’s last directing job before he stands down as Artistic Director at the National Theatre, so here we are at the new Dorfman Theatre (Cottesloe as was) to see it.

The picture above shows the set design by Bob Crowley which includes a very clever metal and light structure which buzzes with music (Bach) and fizzes with fireworks in order to distract from scene changes or enhance one key dinner party set piece.

The Hard Problem’s focus is on the mind, the brain, psychology, and coincidence, and it centres around a fairly large and unlikely coincidence between Olivia Vinall’s totally unconvincing professor (she looks too much like Elsa from Frozen) and Anthony Calf’s well-acted Jerry Krohl (a spiky billionaire who is a bully in the office and a benign domestic at home).  This weakens the play somewhat, as does the pre- and post-coital interplay between Vinall’s Hilary and her tedious lover-tutor Spike (Damien Molony).

This play has a lot to say about academia and publishing (fairly accurate, as it happens), office politics and rivalries, family, life choices, and systems of belief – Hilary is a believer in God who kneels to pray by her bed each night.  But it is mired in cliche – the over-achieving Indian scholar (Parth Thakerar), the brilliant female Chinese mathematician (Vera Chok), the sunny lesbian pair of academic and Pilates instructor (Lucy Robinson and Rosie Hilal).  There’s also the sexist academic who interviews candidates in the men’s room (Jonathan Coy) and the fiercely intelligent privileged child (I think this was Eloise Webb of the three Cathys cast).

Broad characterizations aside, this does try to do something interesting, and to see a more cerebral play than most fill its 100 minute running time is not without interest.  Not vintage Stoppard, or vintage Hytner, but worth a visit.

Theatre review: Othello (National Theatre)

Over to the National last week for Nicholas Hytner’s modern version of ‘Othello’, set in the present-day army but keeping the majority of the text as Shakespeare intended.

Adrian Lester, a fine stage performer who has played Hamlet for Peter Brook and Bobby in the musical Company for Sam Mendes, is probably best known now for the TV series ‘Hustle’. His Othello doesn’t have the majesty of an Olivier or a Willard White (both classic stage-screen Othellos), but his modern general appears bored with the casual racism of his regiment and enamoured of his new young wife, the ‘gentle Desdemona’.

Rory Kinnear, whose career has ranged so far from screen appearances in ‘Women in Love’ and ‘Black Mirror’ to a National Hamlet, is a mean and devious Iago, with a lower middle-class swagger, crude and bitter. How his peers can view him as an honest man remains a mystery, and although he is good, I would have liked to have seen a bit more definition between his actions when with those he deceived, and his confidences with the audience when in soliloquy, but all in all, his is a good portrayal of this complex character.

There are gems in the supporting performances. Olivia Vinali as Desdemona and Lyndsey Marshal as Emilia (an enlisted squaddie in uniform) are memorable, and Jonathan Bailey is a strong Cassio. Less successful is Tom Robertson as Roderigo, too much the fool to be believable, but even he has his moments, as do the smaller roles like Brabantio (William Chubb).

My main issue with the modern setting of this production is that the main plot point of Desdemona making a grievous error in marrying outside of her race doesn’t have an impact other than making the insults (‘thick-lips’, ‘black ram’) sound inspired by racism. Neither would a modern soldier be permitted to take his wife into an area of combat. But these are small points.

A good production, and still powerful when a silent and unrepentant Iago stares at the bed loaded with death that he has caused in the play’s closing moments.

Timon of Athens (National Theatre)

This production of Shakespeare’s oddest play by Nicholas Hytner is part of the World Shakespeare Festival, and is set firmly in the 21st century. Timon opens a new gallery wing and his fawning friends tell him how wonderful he is, just so they can get more money out of him. For every minor gift they offer, he gives back something far more valuable, and so thinks in this way he has loyal friends. Of course when he falls on hard times and needs something from these ‘friends’, they all find ways of denying him – the rich banker, the crook who with Timon’s cash has set himself up in a rich court, the lady senator.

HSBC backdrops place this story firmly in the times of Canary Wharf (which makes mention of Athens a little spurious, as well as amusingly relevant to the Greek economic crisis). There have been other subtle changes, such as making Timon’s steward a woman. The thieving rebel gang are drop-outs like those who took over St Paul’s Cathedral square last year, the final banquet Timon offers his friends is somewhat more scatalogical than simple water. Most of this works well, and the verse of the play is supplemented by additional lines from other Shakespeare works.

How are the performances? This is yet another Shakespeare must-see from Simon Russell Beale. We might not be seeing his Lear just yet, but this Timon follows Richard III, Hamlet, Iago, Benedick, Ariel, and Leontes, and all were exceptional. This man remains one of our greatest classical actors, and even with a plastered finger (broken during a performance last week) his portrayal of the rich man who grows to hate his fellows is strong within a fine cast which includes Deborah Findlay as the aforementioned steward, and Hilton McRae as the jaded philosopher.

Theatre review: Collaborators

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre review: Travelling Light

Currently playing in rep at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton, this comic drama by Nicholas Wright about the birth of the movies and the influence of the Jews is a delightful mix of stage business and screen whimsy.  Although not in the lead role, Antony Sher has been topped billed and heavily publicised throughout the planning of this piece, which is crisply directed by Nicholas Hytner.

The story begins in 1936 as a successful director in Hollywood looks back at his youth in a small town in Eastern Europe, a place so remote that the advent of moving pictures and the stories they tell comes as an amazing surprise.  Motl Mendl (as he was originally known) inherits a projector and camera from his late father and a set of Lumiere prints – these spur him on to make his own efforts, first vignettes showcasing the daily lives of his neighbours, but then under the financial support of mill-owner Jakob (Sher) he starts to develop more elaborate stories, featuring pretty assistant Anna (Lauren O’Neill), who looks much more luminous in the camera’s eye than she does on the stage, saying something about the mystique and fakery of the silver screen.

The second half, once we move to Hollywood and start to unravel a story featuring a character played by the same actor as young Mendl, becomes a bit obvious and leads to an unsatisfying conclusion.  However, the main story has fizz, humour and charm.  And as the older Mendl Paul Jesson adds some finesse to an underwritten role, and Antony Sher is always worth turning up to see.