A Very Expensive Poison (Old Vic)

Please note that A Very Expensive Poison is currently in previews.

Lucy Prebble’s play Enron was one of my favourite stage shows of the first decade of the 21st century, a vibrant and original take on a period of financial turmoil. Now she has turned her attention to the story of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with a radioactive substance in 2006 London, most likely on the orders of the Russian state in which he had served as a “detective”.

A Very Expensive Poison, inspired by the book of the same name by Luke Harding has become a very expensive production, with a set based on a lightbox structure which contracts, expands, and changes scene and focus. It has also become a very long show, currently running at around three hours, which not only milks every single cliche around the Western view of the Russians, but also slows the pace of the plot right down to a painful crawl.

MyAnna Buring and Tom Brooke in A Very Expensive Poison

A strong opening scene, with Marina Litvinetko meeting her lawyer and finding the death of her husband is not being properly investigated, gives way quickly to a farcical approach which seems to lose sight of the fact that a man was left to die, horribly, because of a government need to eliminate him.

Some scenes are similar to those you would see in a sitcom, with the father of Litvinenko owing more to Alf Garnett than Stalin (and even Alexander himself having more than a touch of Rodney in Only Fools and Horses). There are oversized puppets of the Spitting Image type, and although Vladimir Putin/”The President” appears, he is sadly reduced to a personality that lacks real menace.

With a judicious trim in length, and a switch in focus to really develop the investigation into Litvinenko’s previous life in Russia and the events which led to his murder, this would be a solid thriller; or perhaps if Prebble wished to take this wholly down the black comedy route she should think carefully about the impact of the serious speeches about Chechnyan conflict and the Moscow theatre massacre in a scenario played for laughs.

I found A Very Expensive Poison a confused production which doesn’t quite know how to present itself. There are some interesting performances – MyAnna Buring catches the quiet desperation of the wife seeking answers, Reece Shearsmith has an undertone of steel as Putin which needs to be teased out more fully, Lloyd Hutchinson impresses in a range of roles including poisoning suspect Kotvun, and Gavin Spokes does his best as the detective who doesn’t comprehend the complexity of his case – but these are small compensations in a production which currently carries a fair amount of bloat.

A Very Expensive Poison is directed by John Crowley and continues in previews until the 7 September, closing on the 8 October. Photo credit Manuel Harlan.

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All My Sons (Old Vic)

Over to Waterloo today for the fourth of five Arthur Miller plays showing in London this year, this time the family drama All My Sons.

A story of corruption and profiteering in wartime, we first meet Joe Keller (Bill Pullman) in his garden, with his neighbours Dr Bayliss (Sule Rimi) and Frank (Gunnar Cauthery). He’s an affable chap, pleasant enough, wealthy, with an average house.

Sally Field and Colin Morgan
Sally Field and Colin Morgan

Upstairs there’s a guest, Ann (Jenna Coleman, in her London stage debut after television success in Victoria). She was the girl next door and the sweetheart of the Keller family’s eldest son, lost in battle. Now she’s sought after by the other son, Chris (Colin Morgan), who has aspirations to move away and leave the family business.

Sally Field and Jenna Coleman
Sally Field and Jenna Coleman

The first half of this play is mostly scene-setting, with the wives of the neighbours chipping in, then we meet Kate Keller (the wonderful Sally Field), who lives each day in the vain hope that her lost son, Larry, will return. She even gets Frank to chart the horoscope of the day he died to prove it was “a favourable day”.

In the second half of the play, Ann’s brother George (Oliver Johnstone) visits, a coiled spring of nerves, hiding behind his father’s hat, fighting against his growing revulsion of the family who welcome him as a son, but who he blames for his family’s disgrace and his father’s incarceration.

Bill Pullman and Jenna Coleman
Bill Pullman and Jenna Coleman

Heading to raw revelations and family devastation, this play rips apart the pretence and bonhomie of years of neighbours living in close companionship and learning to be smart, not honest.

Jeremy Herrin directs, and Max Jones designs the set of house, picket fence, trees and lights, plus a projection of distortion which hints of the distress to come.

Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan
Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan

Field’s performance is the major draw – I felt Pullman lacked the business toughness behind Keller’s jovial exterior, and I couldn’t always make out his lines even from the front stalls. Morgan and Coleman are good, too, plus Kayla Meikle as Mrs Bayliss.

Jeremy Herrin directs, and Max Jones designs the set of house, picket fence, trees and lights, plus an opening projection of distortion which hints at the fracture and distress to come.

All My Sons continues at the Old Vic until the 8 June. Photo credits Johan Persson.

The American Clock (Old Vic)

The old girl is having a facelift, and this production is sort of in the round with stalls seats behind the stage as well as in front.

The American Clock was written by Arthur Miller and performed for the first time in 1980. It was a failure in its first Broadway appearance, and is rarely revived, but for Miller fans and completists it is just as essential as his classic plays.

This year in London does seem to be Miller time – once this closes, the Old Vic are putting on All My Sons, while over at the Wyndhams David Suchet is starring in The Price, coming up at the Yard in Hackney Wick is a gender-bending The Crucible, and at the Young Vic there is a new production of Death of a Salesman.

I went into The American Clock not knowing what to expect: I knew it featured a family in America’s Great Depression, and that it was a play with music, but that’s all.

Director Rachel Chavkin was responsible for the National’s recent musical Hadestown, and there is some atmospheric cross-over with the soul and jazz standards on display here.

The Baum family – father, mother and son each played by three identically dressed actors – are fairly well-off when the play begins. Father Moe has money in the bank and a decent job. Mother Rose loves her piano, jewellery and nights at the theatre. Son Lee plans to attend an expensive college.

We’re warned by the crash early on by Robertson, who tells his doctor to sell his stocks and keep the profits away from the banks. Sure enough, the markets and banks fail, men who thought themselves millionaires jump from buildings or put bullets through their brains, and families have to hawk their possessions in the pawn shop.

As we move through the 1930s, we follow the Baums and their struggles, with peripheral stories – the grandfather stating Hitler won’t last because Germans are decent people, the farmer who regains his defaulted farm by neighbours nearly lynching the local judge, a dance contest of despair.

One act two scene in the relief office was as powerful as it was pathetic – a starving man nearly killed by his pride evoking our own country’s rise of homelessness and food banks.

There’s a corporate president who hoofs his way to freedom, a steward who takes illegal occupation of the Baum’s basement, and an arranged marriage between Lee and the landlady’s daughter for security.

There are disperate scenes of card nights, money lending, and blind faith in presidential power. Yet, just as we identify with the Baums and their plight, we race from 1938 to 1969 in what seems like ten minutes.

Despite some moments and scenes approaching greatness, and some excellent and committed performances (notably Clare Burt, Golda Rosheuvel – who has the lion’s share of the singing, Francesca Mills – effortlessly moving from mature vamp and frightened wife to jealous teenager and sassy secretary, Amber Aga, and Ewan Wardrop – the hoofer), this show doesn’t quite gel.

It’s almost as if Miller needed an editor to strike through his most preachy and ponderous passages to get to the meat of the matter. The rushed ending is particular reduces the impact of the play.

The American Clock plays until 30 March 2019. Many deals are available if you shop around, and the production is also participating in TodayTix. If you like Miller, then go, but this is certainly not a flawless show.

Photo credits – Manuel Harlan

The Mix: a bowl full of London theatre buzz

Welcome to a new monthly feature on loureviews.blog – this is The Mix, where I’ll pull out some items of London theatre news, big and small, which have caught my eye.

Bar and box office of Above The Stag
Bar and box office of Above The Stag

A is for Above the Stag. This sparkling and vibrant venue, once found behind the Victoria Palace Theatre, is now in residence in Vauxhall, and is fast building its reputation as one of the finest LGBT+ theatres. In a main house and a studio, it presents a variety of shows – Grindr the Opera, and [title of show]: a musical about musicals, are next in line. To find out more, to sign up to the newsletter, or to book tickets to this valuable space, go to http://www.abovethestag.com/vxl/.

Auditorium, Bread and Roses Theatre
Auditorium, Bread and Roses Theatre

B is for Bread and Roses. This innovative and award-winning pub theatre in Clapham High Street recently showcased The Vagina Monologues and seems particularly supportive of new writers, women writers, and fringe comedy. As a relatively new venue the space is actively seeking donations and support to allow it to grow – for more, and for a taste of its upcoming productions, including Adam Gwan’s new musical Ordinary Days, which runs from 5th-16th March, go to https://www.breadandrosestheatre.co.uk/.

A Chichester Festival transfer, Caroline or Change
A Chichester Festival transfer, Caroline or Change

C is for Chichester. The festival, while taking place some miles outside the capital, has transferred a number of hit shows in over the past few years including Fiddler on the Roof, Caroline or Change, Half a Sixpence, King Lear, and Guys and Dolls. Although we are still waiting for news of the mooted transfer of the Noel Gay/Stephen Fry musical Me and My Girl, keep your eyes on this year’s big production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic Oklahoma, which may be London-bound in due course.

Pinter Seven, which closes this month
Pinter Seven, which closes this month

D is for Departures. All good things must come to an end, and we say goodbye to several shows this month, including the English National Opera’s La Boheme on the 22nd, Pinter Seven at the Harold Pinter Theatre on the 23rd, True West at the Vaudeville Theatre on the 23rd, Nine Night at the Trafalgar Studios on the 23rd, the glorious Songs for Nobodies at the Ambassadors on the 23rd, and The Wider Earth at the Natural History Museum on the 24th.

Th' Importance of Bein' Earnest at th' Drayton Arms
Th’ Importance of Bein’ Earnest at th’ Drayton Arms

E is for Earnest. As an honorary Yorkshire girl, having lived there for a decade, I’m sad to miss out on Th’ Importance of Bein’ Earnest at the Drayton Arms Theatre on Old Brompton Road. It runs to the 23rd February and promises “Oscar Wilde meets Shameless” on a Yorkshire council estate, with no afternoon tea or starched collars in sight. For more information, go to https://www.thedraytonarmstheatre.co.uk/the-importance-of-being-earnest.

Bernadette Peters, who appears at the Lyceum this summer
Bernadette Peters, who appears at the Lyceum this summer

F is for Fabulous. Three divas are coming to town to perform their shows, and I’m going to put them all together here. On 18th March, Liza Pullman, formerly one third of Fascinating Aida, sings Streisand at the Lyric Theatre, following a run at The Other Palace. You can purchase tickets at https://www.nimaxtheatres.com/shows/liza-pulman-sings-streisand/ and “give yourself reasons to smile this Spring”.

Patti LuPone, recently seen as Joanne in the reimagined Company, is in conversation at the Theatre Royal Haymarket on 10th March, launching a new series of events entitled Sunday Encounters. More at https://trh.co.uk/whatson/patti-lupone-in-conversation-with-edward-seckerson/.

Finally, the legendary Tony award-winner Bernadette Peters is back in town, at the Lyceum Theatre in Covent Garden, and her show takes place on the 10th June, as part of a UK tour. I’ll be covering this event in the summer, and if you want to be there too, you can find more details and book tickets at https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/bernadette-peters/lyceum-theatre/.

Adjoa Andoh in Richard II
Adjoa Andoh in Richard II

G is for the Globe, specifically the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, where a new production of Richard II opens on the 22nd February. Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton direct the first ever company of women of colour in a Shakespeare play on a major UK stage, in a production which has the Windrush scandal and the Brexit crisis very much in mind. This sounds as if it will be an important production of a play which does lend itself to reinterpretation. For more information, go to https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/whats-on-2018/richard-ii.

John Malkovich in Bitter Wheat
John Malkovich in Bitter Wheat

H is for Harvey. There’s no getting over the fact that London will play host to two plays using the allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein as inspiration this year. Currently running at the Playground Theatre on Latimer Road, Harvey is the brainchild (literally, given it is set in Weinstein’s head) of playwright-performer Steven Berkoff, who shows no signs of mellowing in his ninth decade. More information and booking at https://theplaygroundtheatre.london/events/harvey/.  Later in the year John Malkovich returns to the West End stage for the first time in more than thirty years in David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat, which concerns the character of one “Barney Fein”. This will run at the Garrick Theatre from 7th June to 14th September. Find out more at https://www.nimaxtheatres.com/shows/bitter-wheat/.

Roger Allam in Rutherford and Son
Roger Allam in Rutherford and Son

I is for Inspiration, or lack of in this case, as not one, not two, but three productions of Githa Sowerbury’s 1912 Rutherford and Son are in production during 2019. One is up in Sheffield and currently running, one has just closed at Ealing’s Questors Theatre, and one is due in the National Theatre’s 2019-2020 season (starring Roger Allam). It’s a modern classic about generational strife in a family industry, which I last saw at the Oldham Coliseum in 1987. I’ll be at the National’s version in May – more information on that production at https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/rutherford-and-son.

Publicity for @Juliet
Publicity for @Juliet

J is for &Juliet. There’s been a lot of publicity for this musical, which comes into London towards the end of the year. Everyone knows the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet, but what if Juliet survived and was able to tell her own side of the tale? In the spirit of Six, this show will utilise pop music – this time the work of Max Martin, who wrote for Britney and others – to craft and “irreverent and fun-loving” show, and it opens at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 2nd November. If you’re up North, you can catch its run in Manchester from 10th September. Find out more about the London run at http://www.shaftesburytheatre.com/shows/juliet-2/.

The King's Head Pub & Theatre
The King’s Head Pub & Theatre

K is for the King’s Head. This theatre pub in Islington goes from strength to strength, and two new musicals running in late May-early June look fun, Trump: the Musical and Boris: the Musical. If parodies of current politics are not your cup of tea, you can catch the classics, too, as there are some short pieces by Tennessee Williams running in late July and through August. For more information see https://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/.

Lipstick: A Fairy Tale of Iran
Lipstick: A Fairy Tale of Iran

L is for Lipstick. Lipstick: a Fairy Tale of Iran runs at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham Common, from 26th February to 24th March, as part of the ’96 Festival, celebrating queerness and theatre. Part theatre, part drag cabaret, this show fuses storytelling, vaudeville, theatre, lip-synch and “boylesque”. Nathan Riley plays Mark, Siobhan O’Kelly plays Orla. This story of “rage, redemption and weaponised whimsy” promises to be a very special event. For more, see https://www.omnibus-clapham.org/lipstick/.

A German Life, opening in April at the Bridge Theatre
A German Life, opening in April at the Bridge Theatre

M is for Maggie Smith. She’s returning to the stage for the first time in twelve years in a one-woman play, at the Bridge Theatre, this April. The new play is A German Life, based on the real life testimony of Brunhilde Pomsel, who once worked for Joseph Goebbels. If you are under 25 and a member of the “Young Bridge” scheme there are some tickets available for £15. More information at https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/a-german-life/.

Agnes Colander, running at Jermyn Street Theatre until the 16th March
Agnes Colander, running at Jermyn Street Theatre until the 16th March

N is for Nunn, Trevor. Following an acclaimed run at the Ustinov Studio at the Theatre Royal, Bath, Nunn’s new production of Harvey Granville Barker’s recently rediscovered play Agnes Colander has just opened at the Jermyn Street Theatre (near Piccadilly Circus) and runs until the 16th March. For more details see https://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/agnes-colander/.

Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre

O is for the Orange Tree Theatre. Richmond’s smallest theatre has a mix of old and new productions, and is currently showcasing Rose Lewinstein’s new play Cougar (which I will report on later in the week), with Terence Rattigan’s While the Sun Shines running through June and July. The Orange Tree could always use donations and support if you are unable to attend performances. Find out more about the theatre at https://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/whats-on.

Jonathan Hyde and Ben Allen in Gently Down The Stream
Jonathan Hyde and Ben Allen in Gently Down The Stream

P is for the Park Theatre, in Finsbury Park. Martin Sherman’s new play Gently Down The Stream has its press night tonight and runs through to the 16th March. I’ll be going in early March, and am very much looking forward to this production, directed by Sean Mathias and starring Jonathan Hyde, Ben Allen and Harry Lawtey. The play follows “the remarkably moving and brilliantly funny love story of Beau, an older American pianist living in London, and Rufus, an eccentric young lawyer, celebrating those who led the way for equality, marriage and the right to dream”. More details at https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/gently-down-the-stream.

The fabulous ladies of Six - The Musical
The fabulous ladies of Six – The Musical

Q is for Queens. Six: the Musical continues its run at the Arts Theatre until January 2020. If you haven’t been yet, and you need something to whet your appetite, this article from BBC Newsbeat might get you in the mood. You can book tickets for Six at https://www.sixthemusical.com/ to see “Divorced – Beheaded – Live in Concert!”.

Publicity for Joseph at the London Palladium
Publicity for Joseph at the London Palladium

R is for Revamp. Does the world need yet another version of the Lloyd Webber-Rice pop musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? You be the judge when a brand new production lands at the London Palladium in June. More here https://www.londontheatre.co.uk/show/joseph-and-the-amazing-technicolor-dreamcoat.

Sunday Night Socials at the Union Theatre
Sunday Night Socials at the Union Theatre

S is for Sunday Night Socials. A new series of monthly concerts at the Union Theatre, near Southwark, these are being advertised as “very informal and relaxed” and will feature a whole host of West End performers over the next three months. For more information – and for details of main productions Can-Can and Othello – see http://www.uniontheatre.biz/whats_on.html.

Dear Evan Hansen, coming to the Noel Coward Theatre this year
Dear Evan Hansen, coming to the Noel Coward Theatre this year

T is for Transfers. Come from Away at the Phoenix Theatre has its press night tonight, Waitress at the Adelphi Theatre on the 6th March. These transfers from old Broadway will soon be joined by a third show, Dear Evan Hansen, at the Noel Coward Theatre, for which early booking will be open at the end of this month. I visited Come from Away earlier this month and see Waitress next week.

The Vaults Festival. Via The Reviews Hub.
The Vaults Festival. Via The Reviews Hub.

U is for Underground, specifically The Vaults, beneath Waterloo Station. The Vaults Festival is currently in full swing until the 17th March, with a diverse programme of theatre, comedy, film, and late shows. You can find out more about the Festival at https://vaultfestival.com/.

Glenda Jackson in The Old Vic's #MORELOOS campaign
Glenda Jackson in The Old Vic’s #MORELOOS campaign

V is for Vic, Old. The grand old lady of The Cut is currently undergoing a refit which will improve the foyer and more importantly, the loos! In the meantime, if you’re visiting, there’s portakabins instead. I just have to share this delightful video from their Twitter account – https://twitter.com/oldvictheatre/status/1063045610570506240 – #MORELOOS!!!!

Official West End Theatre Guide image
Official West End Theatre Guide image

W is for the West End, and the Official West End Theatre Guide for the huge, the overpriced, and the spectacular shows on in the big houses – https://guides.ticketmaster.co.uk/west-end-theatre/. By all means support as and if you can, but remember there are literally thousands of places and performances in our metropolis.

Dock X at Surrey Quays

X is for is Dock X, at Surrey Quays. If you’re creating a special and unique event, this new multi-use space might be just the ticket. The industrial space lends itself to brand activations, car launches, conferences, award dinners, cultural pop ups, experiential and team building events across its vast 34,100 sq. ft reach. Perfect for creatives! More at https://venuelab.co.uk/venues/dock-x-london/.

Exterior of the Unicorn Theatre
Exterior of the Unicorn Theatre

Y is for Youth. The Unicorn Theatre, on Tooley Street, London Bridge, is dedicated to developing work for young audiences. In 70 years of children’s theatre, it also has a vibrant Schools’ Programme, workshops, and this week is running some special events for half term. Find out more at https://www.unicorntheatre.com/whatson.

Lemurs at Hanwell Zoo
Lemurs at Hanwell Zoo

Z is for Zoo. Watching and learning about animals in a caring and natural habitat is a form of theatre, whether you are in Regent’s Park, Battersea or my local little zoo at Hanwell.

If you’d like your venue, event or production to be included in next month’s round-up, let me know by emailing louise@loureviews.blog or contacting me on Twitter at @loureviewsblog.

Wise Children (Old Vic)

Stage view from the audience

I remember reading Angela Carter’s novel about the dancing girls ‘The Lucky Chances’, Nora and Dora, a few years ago and was very intrigued to see how it would be adapted.

I know Emma Rice’s work from her two decades at Kneehigh, including their production of another Carter work, Nights at the Circus, which I saw in Leeds in 2006.

I knew from this it was definitely possible for Wise Children to be adapted effectively. Rice now leads her new company, also entitled Wise Children, but this initial show – which has its press night on the 17 October – has a familiar feel and the creative flair we have come to expect.

Doras, Noras, Grandma and Lady Atalanta at home

When we meet Dora Chance, on her 75th birthday, just five minutes older than her sister Nora, she – played by Gareth Snook – tells us about their home before a party invitation arrives from the great actor Sir Melchior Hazard, their father, now a hundred years old but he has never acknowledged them.

In planning for the party we see the twins’ history played out for us from conception to toddling tappers, from puberty and first love, from disappointments to butterflies.

Young Dora, Grandma, Young Nora

This is a piece of dark, honest drama with period songs, a heavy dose of magical realism, and disturbing undertones. The book actually went a step further with obsession and implied incest, but this show tiptoes around that to some extent.

We meet the twins portrayed through three sets of actors, and casting is gender neutral with the teenage Nora and elderly Dora both played by men. Sometimes more than one set are on stage at once, which is effective and emotionally engaging.

Rehearsal footage with Young Dora and Young Nora

The Chance girls are brought up by their dead mother’s landlady, ‘Grandma’, and are taken care of by their father’s freewheeling brother Perry, who spends money on them but a strange relationship with both is implied, and there are long absences when he isn’t around.

Melchior, now married with frightful ginger twins of his own, reveres them but treats his older girls are curiosities only. Once they have moved from end of the pier jobs with Max Miller-lite comic Gorgeous George, they join their father in Shakespeare, but does he want them for themselves or for their odd dance-strip routine?

Nora grows to be an outwardly confident glamourpuss, sleeping around and hiding her feelings, while Dora stays in the background. They share a boyfriend, gifted to Dora by Nora when they hit eighteen, and continue to live as two halves of the same coin.

A toy theatre, faulty light bulbs, a caravan, orange scarves, an animated flight across London, and doubled up casting helps pull out the shady glamour of the footlights and the misunderstandings of family, sex and secrets.

This adaptation is joyous, always interesting, and even with a few remaining fluffs, mistakes and longuers which will probably be gone by press night, this is a stunning gem of a show with a hard working ensemble and an accomplished distellation of a complex book.

Many characters have been snipped and storylines slightly altered, but from the time we meet the Chances as puppet dolls through to old age, as they get – and miss – their own chances and where the living ultimately walk among the dead, we are walking with them.

Gareth Snook is surprisingly tender as the ageing Dora, and Omari Douglas is fantastic as the tarty mid-period showgirl Nora. Melissa James (showgirl Dora) and Etta Murfitt (elderly Nora) may be less showy, but it is interesting to follow the trajectory of these girls/women as their lives evolve.

Long-time Rice collaborator Mike Shepherd does well in a variety of roles, ultimately becoming the older Perry, and you can almost imagine young Sam Archer who plays Perry in his prime may have ended up this way; less convincing is the transformation of Ankur Bahl as Melchoir into Paul Hunter, who previously mimicked those smutty Miller jokes.

Mike Shepherd in rehearsal

Patrycja Kujawska is excellent as both Lady Atalanta and the boy shared by the growing twins; Katy Owen is a domineering Grandma with a soft heart, a lot of pride, and a fondness for stout, and it is fun to see the acting of Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud as the young twins Dora and Nora, such a contrast to the dreadful Imogen and Saskia.

Playing out after curtain call with ‘My Heart Belongs To Daddy’ underlines the clever use of songs throughout – not simply the period pieces but also work by Louis Jordan and Cyndi Lauper. The greaseprint is thick but it can’t cover the cracks.

Well done to the company for hitting the sexual complexities of this novel, and in making a moment or two genuinely shocking even when the story paints a smile.

Wise Children is a special show which is well worth your time with sparkles, grotty dressing rooms, mirrors and a little bit of ‘Electric Avenue’. You will go out with a song in your heart and a tear in your eye.

Rehearsal photos by Steve Tanner. Production photos from the Old Vic Twitter account.

Sylvia (Old Vic)

Note that the entire run of this new musical is now being classed as previews, and that the Old Vic are handing out notices stating “it has radically evolved into what promises to be a genuinely thrilling full-blown musical … the performance … is considerably longer and in a more raw state than the creative team and The Old Vic would ever have planned … what we are sharing with you today is a work in progress”.

Hero_Landscape_SYLVIA_The_Old_Vic.jpg
The Pankhursts

There has been drama right from the start of the run, when the original first preview was changed into an open dress rehearsal, which was then cancelled part-way through as actress Genesis Lynea (who played Sylvia Pankhurst) was taken ill. Her understudy, Maria Omakinwa, has now taken over the leading role for the remainder of this short run, with a minimum of rehearsal time. Hats off to her.

Running at more than three hours, including interval, this show needs a fair amount of brutal trimming, as well as a focus which perhaps does not include too much stage time for Sylvia’s sister Christabel (Witney White). I was also unconvinced about the relationship portrayed between Sylvia and the Labour Party leader Keir Hardie: this has been rumoured in some accounts but is in no way confirmed. More problematic is the brief reference to a lesbian relationship between Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, again a rumour which the writers should have the nerve to expand upon if they wish to do justice to it.

Kate Prince, who heads the ZooNation company, and who is behind the book and lyrics for this musical, has tried to address the issue of casting black actresses as Emmeline, Christabel, and Sylvia Pankhurst, and black actors as Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George, in the name of diversity. It feels a similar casting quirk that Hamilton has had success with, as is the use of hip hop music and dancing, but I felt that the character of Jennie Churchill, Winston’s mother as a bossy Red Hot Momma (although Jade Hackett blew the roof off the place) was particularly problematic.

There’s just too much going on, and even as someone who knows the story of the struggle for Women’s Suffrage, I felt a little lost and bored at times. The sequence with Emily Wilding Davison and her death at the Epsom Derby is 1913 was lost in confusion, although the song which followed immediately after was a high point. The prison-based depiction of force-feeding was rushed and flawed, and short-changes the issue which went on for more than five years and caused declining health to many women. For a more in-depth treatment of both I can recommend the television serial Shoulder to Shoulder.

Making the opposition, and particularly Churchill, comedic, is also an aspect which doesn’t quite come off. Here you have on one side the measured performances from Omakinwa, from Beverley Knight as Emmeline, and from Carly Bawden as Mrs Churchill (Bawden also portrays Kenney), but then you have the over-broad ones from Delroy Atkinson as Churchill and, to some extent, from John Dagleish as Keir Hardie (with red scarf, tie and long socks proclaiming his political affiliation).

The songs are a mix of funk, soul and hip-hop, and the movement and dance sequences are certainly energetic and inspiring, right from the point that Elliotte Williams-N’Dure’s General Flora Drummond exorts the gathering to “make some noise”. There are just too many songs, and as much as I enjoyed Clementine Churchill’s break-out letter to the newspaper, the letters from the Pankhurst siblings Christabel, Adela and Harry to their imprisoned sister, or Sylvia’s lovestruck memories of seeing Hardie as she grew up, they don’t really push the plot along.

I wanted to see and hear more about Sylvia Pankhurst, who is often hidden in the shadows of her more militant sister and mother, and what drove her to support the working woman’s cause. I wanted to see more following her break from the WSPU.

As a woman from the same town as Annie Kenney, I was disappointed that she was simply there to make eyes as Christabel, when she had so much more to offer to the history of the movement. She was a strong working woman from a mill town who joined with the middle-class ladies: if you don’t want to give her that credit, don’t use the character. The use of Ada to composite several women in the movement would allow one of Sylvia’s friends and mentors to be depicted instead of Kenney.

Ultimately this show is nowhere near ready for a full run, and although Omakinwa is doing a great job, she is still using the book heavily in the second act and reading her lines in key scenes including the aforementioned one of force-feeding and a two-header argument with her mother, which would have great power had she been interacting with Knight fully.

This show does have great potential, and has some excellent moments, but there are too many technical issues present at the moment, and too much going on to really focus on the story or engage with the characters, for this to be a true success. However, I look forward to seeing how it evolves and whether it does have a future.

Girl From The North Country (Old Vic)

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This play by Conor McPherson, with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, is emphatically not a musical, nor it is a jukebox selection of greatest hits.  Instead, it is a play set in the era of the Depression, with many storylines intertwining, some succeeding and taking flight, some so ephemeral they disappear into thin air.

Into this play are inserted a number of Dylan songs written between 1963 and 2012, which the characters perform to the audience rather than to each other, giving the production a dream quality and the songs a route into the minds and thoughts of the characters who cannot admit them to themselves or each other.

Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds) runs a boarding house, which he rents while he fast runs out of money, and he lives there with his wife, Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson), who has dementia and a lack of inhibition, and who told him, shortly before her mind was broken, that she didn’t love him.

He seeks solace with a young widow, Mrs Neilsen (Debbie Kurrup), who waits for a legacy from her marriage that might never come, and shares the confined space of his decaying abode with feckless son Gene (Sam Reid), and adopted black daughter, Marianne (Sheila Atim), who is mysteriously with child and set to be married off to a local elderly and lonely tradesman, Mr Perry (Jim Norton).

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There’s an ‘Our Town’ type narrator, the local doctor (Ron Cook), a bickering couple (Stanley Townsend and Bronagh Gallagher) with a son with learning difficulties (Jack Shalloo), and a couple of drifters: one a Bible bashing blackmailer, Rev Marlowe (Michael Schaeffer), and the other a pugilist with aggression in his soul, Joe Scott (Arinze Kene), who take up residence with the Laines.

Hinds doesn’t sing.  He’s the only cast member who doesn’t even join in the group numbers, and this seems deliberate to emphasise his isolation from the rest of the characters (either that, or he really can’t hold a tune!).  His Nick should draw more sympathy than he does; I found his vocal delivery sometimes veered towards the shouty, and that’s a shame when I have seen him do far more nuanced work in other plays and on television.

Bronagh Gallagher, who I remember playing Minnie in a TV production of Shadow of a Gunman many years ago, is absolutely terrific as the ignored wife and devastated mother.  She’s a dab hand on the drums too.  Shirley Henderson, too, is totally convincing as the lost spirit, and the soaring, shining spark which comes alive in song (notably Like a Rolling Stone and Forever Young).

I remain unconvinced by some of the plot points, such as why Gene would react in such a racist way to Joe when he has grown up with a black girl as his sister; in fact I felt the story might be taking a much more sinister turn than it eventually did.  Also I did not really feel engaged with his lost love story with Kate Draper (Claudia Jolly), although their duet of I Want You was delicious.

Norton gives yet another superb performance as Mr Perry, who remembers ‘a warm light and a smile’ from his married days, and who seems to have genuine concern and affection for Marianne.  His character is poignant, but he also seems to enjoy singing and dancing in those ensemble numbers.

Cook’s character is more problematic; he is good, but seems superfluous, and I really thought his closing monologue was not needed.  I would have much preferred a fade to black after Elizabeth’s final line.  There’s one standout musical number and performance, but to reveal what and who would spoil a major plot point, so I will leave you to see and enjoy it.

The use of Dylan songs is clever, and it shows that complete artistic control was seded to McPherson and his team: I felt that Slow Train and Hurricane were particular high points.  In a simple set, with instruments of the period, you could summarise this production as being performed by a hard-working cast, but with too many loose threads, with some excellent nuggets here and there (two marriages showing their cracks, people pretending to be what they are not, people being accused of things they didn’t do), and an excellent use of light, shadow and space in the musical numbers.

Girl From The North Country ran at the Old Vic until the 7th October 2017.  A cast recording of the musical numbers has been released on CD and for streaming on Spotify.

The West End transfer of the show, with most original cast members, will run from the 29th December 2017 to the 24th March 2018 at the Noel Coward Theatre.  More information is available at Seatplan.

King Lear (Old Vic)

November 2016 will be topped and tailed for me by two new productions of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, and this first one is a rather significant one, as it represents the return to the stage of Glenda Jackson after her quarter of a century career change to represent Hampstead and Highgate (later Kilburn) in Parliament.

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The Old Vic is not the most obvious venue for a modern dress, Brechtian, Lear, with its Victorian proscenium – however, director Deborah Warner and her co-designer Jean Kalman have created a staging which at first looks as if might use the whole stage space (it is fully opened out and set with movable walls, screens, and plastic chairs on which some of the cast sit and chat before the action starts).  In fact most scenes are staged on the front of the stage, which projects into the auditorium necessitating the removal of the first few rows of the stalls.

So, a minimal set and staging (and each scene number projected on to the screens or on top of the proscenium – perhaps to assist those new to the play to stay engaged throughout its mammoth running time; 3 hrs 35 on the final preview on Thursday), and modern costumes.  Jane Horrocks’ toxic Regan wears killer black heels; Rhys Ifans’ Fool is dressed as Superman and in one scene dons a scary clown’s mask; Karl Johnson’s Gloucester wears jeans.

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Glenda Jackson plays the King, and although there is no gender impersonation here, she dons androgynous blacks and reds and has her hair in a short and severe style.  Her authority effortlessly commands the stage in her first appearance, in which her love for Morfydd Clark’s sweet Cordelia (they arrive hand in hand) curdles so quickly to rage you almost have sympathy for Regan and Goneril (a steely Celia Imrie), having to cope with so changeable and terrifying a parent.  She displays a sarcastic vein of humour too, in the ‘crawl towards death’ line, and later, in her interplay with the Fool’ and she handles the storm scenes well in flowing shirt and long socks, in despairing, shattered senility.

Johnson’s Gloucester elicits sympathy as he appears less of a statesman and more of a meddling Polonius-type, and although some of the audience seemed to find his ‘I have no eyes’ line amusing, it was deeply felt and beautifully delivered.  As the bad son, Edmond, Simon Manyonda first appears doing an exhausting workout with skipping rope and press-ups, before dismissing his doting brother Edgar by mooning the audience.  He is a studious and serious traitor, colluding with those watching from the dark and mocking the two daughters who, barren and frigid in their respective marriages, salivate over him.

Edgar, played by Harry Melling, is good in the Poor Tom scenes (curiously by the time we get to the ‘naked fellow’ lines he is clothed, but he does disrobe completely earlier on), although he overdoes the speech stating his father’s ‘heart burst’, striking his chest repeatedly in the echo of a heartbeat.  I note he is one of the Troughton acting family as well as a Harry Potter alumnus, and can see some of his family potential (his uncle David is soon over at the Barbican in the second November Lear I mentioned earlier, playing Gloucester).

Rounding out the cast are Danny Webb as a psychotic Cornwall, all smiles before the steel temper strikes (the blinding of Gloucester is done well, with suggestive shadows and piercing Regan scream); William Chubb as a sympathetic Albany, trapped in a marriage which has decayed for years; Gary Sefton as an ingratiating Oswald; and Sargon Yelda as a strangely young and vital Kent.   The scene where the King of France accepts a dowerless Cordelia is somewhat spoilt by his comic accent, but that’s a small criticism.

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This is Glenda Jackson’s moment, though, and she surely shines.  Her interplay with her fellow cast is convincing – in particular with Ifans’ Fool, Yelda’s disguised Kent (and earlier, in his banishment scene), and her daughters.  Her ‘howl, howl’ as she is dragged in on a carpet with her deceased young daughter is heart-rending, and her refusal of Gloucester’s request to kiss her hand ‘let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality’ is nicely done, as is her recognition of him despite her previous staggering madness with leafed crown.

A nod, too, for the design of the storm, with projections, sound, and large black plastic sheet simply shaken.  The effect is spectacular.

Photos by Manuel Harlan.  King Lear runs at the Old Vic until the 3rd December.  Book tickets at http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2016/king-lear/.

The Crucible (Old Vic), review

Arthur Miller’s powerful play equating the hysteria of the Salem witch trials with the investigations of the McCarthy committee against Communist influences within Hollywood.  Even with this in mind the unfolding plot seems eerily relevant today, in which any questioning of authority might be seen as subversive, and where the question can still be asked “is the accuser always holy?”

The Old Vic auditorium has been adapted to accommodate a production ‘in the round’, not entirely successfully – from the original old stalls seating, where I was, you look forward to the old proscenium arch and boxes which look a little forlorn now, especially as they have been draped in what look like stained dustsheets.  Ahead there is temporary stalls seating, some so close to the actors they almost become part of the action, and two tiers of seating above.  These seats must cost less than the ones on the other side of the stage as they are often looking at the backs of actors rather than seeing a true sense of what’s going on.

Richard Armitage has been cast in the leading role of John Proctor, a good Christian man with a pious wife (Anna Madeley) and three young boys who we never see.  Their servant Mary Warren (Natalie Gavin) is close to a simpleton, easily led and susceptible to suggestion from her close friend Abigail Williams (Samantha Colley), who had previously served the Proctors and been dismissed after an illicit affair with the master of the house.  As Proctor will say towards the end of the play, Abigail is ‘no child’, and it is her cunning and calculation that led to the horrendous destruction of more than twenty good souls of her village.

This is an era where witchcraft is still seriously considered as a counter to pious religious observance, where girls are seen to fly, fit and faint to order, and where outside figures of authority (the minister, Mr Hale (Adrian Schiller, who is excellent), and the judge, Danforth (Jack Ellis)) are initially welcomed but then bring fear and terror with them.  There’s something about watching crowd mentality and hysteria which is underlined in this production from the opening scenes, where neighbours look at each other with suspicion and old questions about the land and the law rear their heads.

‘The Crucible’ is an intense play which is powerfully performed here, and becomes exceptionally moving towards the end.  Some small, but beautiful pieces of casting bring veterans William Gaunt (as Giles) and Ann Firbank (as Rebecca Nurse) to the stage, while newcomer Colley is the epitome of jealous evil as Abigail, with her darting eyes and spittles of spite coming through in her first interaction alone with her former lover.  She is a dangerous spirit who leads the other children in a spiral of fantasy which leads their friends to madness or the gallows.

Some of the playing is a little too broad for the space (Michael Thomas as Rev Parris, Harry Attwell as Putnam) but these are playing the accusers, and it is perhaps necessary to see them caught up in their own vengeance and wild excitement as they abuse power in the name of piety. 

The only downside to this production if I had to pick one was the small minority in the audience who felt the need to laugh at the scenes in the court, which have to be played at a heightened level to be effective.  The in the round staging does work well in these scenes – I spied a woman in the temporary stalls with her hand to her mouth looking horrified at Armitage’s ‘because it is my name’ speech and this did add something to an already unbearable experience.  You watch these characters unravel before your eyes and you are helpless to help them or look away. 

See this for Armitage’s extraordinary performance – he’s rarely off-stage for the mammoth three hour running time (plus interval) and although his vocal power might be a little diminished by the end, it doesn’t matter.  His Proctor will surely be classed as one of the great stage performances in the future.