Sunday, May 31, 2015

THE REHEARSAL

THE REHEARSAL
Chichester Festival Theatre in the Minerva
29.05.2015

Dust sheets shroud the ch√Ęteau, autumn leaves enhance the sense of melancholy.
The Count [Jamie Glover], Tiger to his friends, and arbiter of taste, knows how to throw an elegant party, and he's set on staging an amateur Marivaux - La Double Inconstance – to amuse his guests. Roped in to this “worthless world of taffeta and treachery” are his closest friend, his wife, his mistress, his wife's lover, his lawyer and the young governess to the dozen assorted orphans who, inexplicably, inhabit a distant wing.
Anouilh's witty but ultimately depressing piece dates from 1950. Chichester, typically, excel at capturing the period feel, in a stylish production directed by Jeremy Sams, whose translation this is, and designed by William Dudley. The painted scenery, and the undercurrents of mistrust and malevolence, are gradually revealed as the Marivaux characters meld with the modern-day actors. The cigarette, the telephone brutally remind us that we're no longer in the age of elegance.
A superb cast – Niamh Cusack as the Countess, Katherine Kingsley as Hortensia, Tiger's mistress, Gabrielle Dempsey as the mousy governess Lucile. And, in a compelling performance, Edward Bennett is outstanding as Hero, the dypsomaniac, self-pitying guest who “likes breaking things” and whose ultimately tragic melancholy overshadows the second act. His two-handed scene with Lucile is masterly
A witty, elegant period piece, full of civilized scheming and bitchery, with potent subtexts and resonances.

Friday, May 29, 2015

EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON

EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON
Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at The Old Court
28.05.2015

Mike Bartlett's climate-change drama has big themes and a huge cast. It's an ambitious, thought-provoking piece of theatre which makes significant demands on any company bold enough to put it on stage.
CTW is at the top of its game in this production, directed by Danny Segeth with Vikki Pead. The performance space is remodelled to provide intimacy as well as epic scale, with two levels linked by a central staircase. In harmony with the eco message, everything used is recycled, and the live music [MD Cameron Price] is acoustic, organically integrated into the action.
The play explores the imminent crises of global warming and population explosion, through the eyes and the words of three generations. The time shifts from the sixties to a distant, dystopian future.
A big stretch technically, with so many areas to light, plus the band, and a screen to assist with narrative clarity.
Twelve excellent actors take on dozens of roles. Some, it is true, find their characters more successfully than others, but every one of them gives an impressively confident and truthful performance.
Laura Bradley plays the Liberty's girl as well as the old lady on Hampstead Heath, looking back to the days before Dunkirk as she awaits the gathering storm. Georgie Whittaker has an intriguing dual life as an autistic schoolboy whose role is dramatically redefined in one of several heart-stopping moments. Stefan Stuart is the impassioned protester Tom; Joe Kennedy a hopeless husband in a mid-life crisis.
The scientist who sells out to Robin Winder's polluting dollar is superbly done by James Christie. Naive and idealistic in his younger years, truculent and guilt-ridden in his sixties, it is an impeccably sustained, riveting performance, nicely offset by Helen Quigley as his long-suffering housekeeper. His three very different daughters, abandoned when their mother dies, are Evie Taylor, outstanding as an all too believable politician, Laura Hill as the troubled, and troublesome, wild child and Ruth Westbrook giving a searingly sincere performance in the pivotal role of Freya, the middle sister who's pregnant with the next generation, but feels overwhelmingly inadequate, to the despair of her husband [Ryan Read-Gatterell].
Secure versatility from Kelly McGibney and newcomer Tom Tull as, amongst others, the minister's PA, an aviophobic businessman and a polar bear.
It's a long show, and occasionally words are lost to pace and naturalism, but a seamless succession of short scenes sustains the impetus, and the intimate encounters are contrasted with some superlative physical ensembles.

Image from an original photograph by Tom Tull

Thursday, May 28, 2015

THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM








THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM
National Theatre at the Olivier
27.05.2015


Farquhar's carnal comedy comes to the vast Olivier stage, nicely filled by a versatile three-storey house [Lizzie Clachan designed] which morphs before our eyes from Boniface's inn to the Bountiful household, as oil lamps flying out pass chandeliers flying in.
Michael Bruce's music is splendid, too. Folk inspired and lively, especially in the “Trifle” song and dance number, and the French chanson, complete with accordeon. Musicians step out of doorways to accompany; the show begins with a lone fiddler at the top of the house, and ends that way too, when she is joined on stage by the whole band and the acting company for a joyful jig.
Simon Godwin's production eschews overly stylish Restoration mannerism for a more naturalistic feel: Susannah Fielding's resourceful Mrs Sullen has a feminist streak; she's well supported by Pippa Bennett-Warner as her sister-in-law sidekick. The two “brothers in iniquity” are Geoffrey Streatfield and Sam Barnett. Great comedy performances too from Jane Booker as Lady Bountiful, Richard Henders as her sullen, silent sot of a son, and Pearce Quigley as a deliciously deadpan Scrub.

It's a complex piece, but the pace is excellent and the narrative is driven along at a cracking pace, especially in the last act, when bandits, marriage, divorce, and a helpful inheritance come hard on each other's heels.

THE HARD PROBLEM

THE HARD PROBLEM
National Theatre at the Dorfman
27.05.2015


Hedge funds, a gym-slip baby, neuroscience, the power of coincidence, the politics of academia.
That's a lot to pack into 100 minutes, and we haven't really looked at the Hard Problem: Cartesian dualism, consciousness, the mind/body conundrum.
I'm not sure I could have attributed it to Stoppard if I hadn't known. And what if it had landed anonymously on Nick Hytner's desk …
Of course Stoppard has previous as far as philosophy is concerned. Jumpers, for one, and, my favourite, Professional Foul, the television film where philosophers mingle with footballers. Pure philosophy gets a bit of a bashing in this latest play, and those of us expecting intellectual showmanship of the calibre of those classics will be disappointed.
One difficulty is that not many of the characters are sympathetic, nor do they seem to be drawn from life. Is that the writing, the casting or the direction ? A professor whose idiom includes “one feels” is not likely to say “haitch” for H. The wittiest thing in Hytner's production is the Venetian bed.
The dialogue often seems like a long tick-list. Teleology, Basel rules, altruism, game theory, the brain worm [Dicrocoelium dendriticum ], Godel's proof, the Prisoner's Dilemma … Characters often end up explaining stuff their listeners must already know. There's a Pilates instructor to ask the really basic questions.
Use of Pilates signals a certain laziness, perhaps. Loughborough University, too.
But there is much to enjoy, and a feast of food for thought. Together with all the ideas, there are human stories too, for Vera Chuk's sensitively drawn Bo, and for the central character, Hilary, played by Olivia Vinall.
She is picked from the slush pile to join the prestigious and amply funded Kroll Institute, though hardly seems qualified. In Vinall's performance she is touchingly vulnerable [miracle, coincidence and fireworks in her personal journey], but fails to convince as the academic – she simply sounds like an actor.
The frequent scene changes are covered by solo piano Bach – that most intellectual of musical forms – while above the stage a huge hard-wired neuron installation glows and flashes, the mind/body problem made kinetic.
A witty, clever piece, with enough twists and treats to keep us entertained. But not vintage Stoppard. If you want that, go back to Arcadia. Or for a brilliant account of Philosophy of Mind in a fictional, well-funded department, try David Lodge's “Thinks ...”, now a play as well as a novel.

Monday, May 25, 2015

JULIAN GLOVER'S BEOWULF

BEOWULF
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

24.05.2015



Hear! Listen!” The story-teller captures our attention, and keeps it for an hour or more, recounting one of the earliest tales to be written down from the great oral tradition of Norse myth.
Glover makes it all so immediate – the fire flickering in the Great Hall, , the “foam-throated seafarer on the ocean's swell” the dread dragon, the hand of Grendel; they all appear at his bidding in our imagination.
It's surprising funny in parts, and impressively physical. Occasional snatches of the rich original add to the mythic quality, and the candlelit playhouse recalls the convivial hall of Heorot.
It's meant to be told to rapt listeners of course, and for the thirty or more years Glover has been bringing these heroes, monsters and mythical beasts to audiences of all kinds.

But now, at the age of eighty, he's hanging up Beowulf's broad sword, and in a low-key but very moving ceremony, he handed the mantle to his son, Jamie, who will keep the story alive for another generation.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

AS YOU LIKE IT

AS YOU LIKE IT

at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

23.05.2015


Shakespeare's quirky romantic comedy poses more questions than it answers – hence the title, perhaps.
Blanche McIntyre's production is sumptuously dressed; there is no set – no forest, either – simply discreet banners to suggest a change of focus.
The stage is considerably extended, encouraging the actors to engage with the audience, and enabling Jaques and Touchstone to lob witty observations over the heads of the groundlings. They're both excellent, the philosophers: Daniel Crossley's Touchstone literally laid back with his cool shades, James Garnon mastering the space as the melancholy Jaques, giving a cynical Seven Ages with an apple in his hand. [Though not, like Michael Bryant back in 79 at the NT, munching it throughout.]
Some others seem underpowered – Orlando and the Dukes – but there is excellent comedy from the two shepherdesses [Gwyneth Keyworth's Phebe and Sophia Nomvete's Audrey] and from Patrick Driver as Corin, a very Shepherd's Bush rustic.
Michelle Terry as Rosalind and Ellie Piercy as Celia work together brilliantly as the cousins – Terry, a consummate Shakespearean for the 21st century, is “a busy actor”, with unlimited physical energy, but knows the value of stillness, too - “my father was no traitor”. They are no mere spectators at the wrestling match, either …
The production seems a little long, at over three hours. It starts, like this season's King John, with a funeral, but includes plenty of fun along the way: anachronistic props – the tandem for the “two gypsies on a horse”, Martext's shopping trolley, Ganymede's map of Arden – and a great song and dance number for the Lover and His Lass.
And it ends, of course, with a lively jig, and Rosalind's epilogue, in which she reveals the boy beneath: “If I were a woman ...”

Friday, May 22, 2015

ABSENT FRIENDS

ABSENT FRIENDS

London Classic Theatre at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford

20.05.2015


Old friends, shared memories. They meet up, in this classic comedy, to support Colin, who moved out of the locality, met Carol, popped the question, but then lost her to a freak drowning accident.
They're gathered in Di's lounge, the epitome of 70s style. It becomes clear that there are tensions amongst the old crowd, and cheery, upbeat Colin, when he arrives, is clearly the happiest of them all despite his loss.
Michael Cabot's polished touring revival brings out the weaknesses in all six characters. Ashley Cook is the annoyingly positive Colin; Kevin Drury the sour, unfaithful husband of Diana, whose valiant efforts to put on a brave face for Colin's sake are at the heart of the drama. She's played with wonderful depth and humanity by Catherine Harvey – the polar opposite of Kathryn Ritchie's rudely laconic Evelyn. She's married to John [John Dorney], insecure, restless, squirming at any mention of death.Warm-hearted, foot-in-mouth Marge is amusingly done by Alice Selwyn, with excellent comic timing.
The excruciating awkwardness of it all, the wrecked relationships and the domestic disquiet, make for two hours of delightfully uncomfortable entertainment.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

HIGH SOCIETY

HIGH SOCIETY
at The Old Vic Theatre
16.05.2015


The Swell Party starts, after a lengthy pre-show, with a party piece. Joe Stilgoe, son and heir of Richard, is left alone at the on-stage grand to show off by asking the audience for tunes to weave into virtuoso variations.
Take Five, George Michael, O Mio Babbino Caro, Moon River – a great medley, and a hard act to follow, frankly. Especially as High Society is no Anything Goes. A compendium piece, with Cole Porter numbers from various eras, and a Philadelphia Storyline about the romantic tangles of the Long Island idle rich.
Maria Friedman's slick, inventive staging uses the tiny performance area – about the size of an ocean liner dance floor, audience on all four sides – with movement and magic, highlighting some excellent period performances. Kate Fleetwood is socialite Tracy Lord, whose ex [a brilliant Rupert Young] turns up on the eve of her wedding to wooden, humourless Kittredge [Richard Grieve]. The plot is charmingly thickened by two undercover journalists – Jamie Parker and Anabel Scholey. Many stellar performances further down the bill, too, from Ellie Bamber as the tomboy younger Lord sister, Barbara Flynn as their mother, and a bearded Jeff Rawle twinkling away like Dickie Attenborough as tipsy Uncle Willie.
The chorus comment on the action, shift the furniture, and cook a sunnyside-up breakfast grill at the side. The curtain calls have not only brilliant choreography but even a musical backing synchronized with the characters.
Two stand-out numbers among so many standards [and the odd archaeological specimen] – True Love, with the eponymous model boat on the projected pool and later in the circle as the stalls seemingly fill with water, and a stunning Let's Misbehave, with Stilgoe joining MD Theo Jamieson at two pianos, and Nathan M Wright's choreography including a tap routine on the lid of the grand.
I've high hopes of Chichester's two musicals for 2015, but I'm not sure that even they can come up with a production number to beat that memorable Let's Misbehave.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

STEEL MAGNOLIAS

STEEL MAGNOLIAS
Greville Theatre Club at the Barn Theatre

15.05.2015


Robert Harling's bitter-sweet comedy is set in a cosy Chinquapin beauty parlour – all the action, the tragedy and the farce, happens off-stage. The ladies of the neighbourhood use Truvy's as refuge and group therapy, while outside spring turns to winter.
Jonathan Scripps' feel-good production is set in a beautifully realised salon - “luxurious without being sleazy”: lilac paintwork, hood dryers and women's magazines.
Shelby – a spot-on characterization from Sonia Lindsey-Scripps, southern drawl and all – is being titivated for her pink-themed Princess Grace wedding. Her mother [Pam Hemming] fusses, huffs and interferes. Nervous newbie Annelle [warmly characterized by Saira Plane] clearly has a past to hide. Larger than life characters breeze in and out – Ouiser, in a bad mood for forty years, is grumpily played by Lynda Shelverton. Clairee, elegant, big shoulders, big hair, is wonderfully done by Madeline Harmer. Like Marcia Baldry-Bryan's feisty Truvy, she nails the sharp Southern wit and the crisp one-liners – I think it's to do with the eyes … Truvy has some of the best quips, including my favourite, “the nicest thing I can say about her is all her tattoos are spelled correctly”.
On opening night, there was some hesitancy and a few fluffed lines, but, though we weren't always convinced that we were in Louisiana, there was a palpable sense of community and camaraderie amongst these six ladies, well served by excellent ensemble playing. So that when the tear-jerker ending comes, with M'Lynn reliving her “most precious moment” at her daughter's bedside, the wave of shared sympathy embraces the audience, too. As Truvy says, “laughter through tears – my favourite emotion”.
The traditional Greville supper featured apple pie and a superb salmon salad – alas, no dago pie or Cuppa Cuppa Cuppa cake: never mind, here's the recipe, courtesy of http://www.southernfatty.com/


Cuppa Cuppa Cuppa Cake

Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes

Ingredients
1 cup flour, self-raising
1 cup sugar (I prefer vanilla sugar!)
1 cup fruit cocktail with the juice
ice cream, to cut the sweetness (optional, but encouraged)

Instructions
Pre-heat oven to 350 F.
Mix all ingredients together until well-combined.
Bake in greased pan or skillet until gold and bubbly, about 40-45 minutes.


production photograph: Adrian Hoodless

Thursday, May 14, 2015

CIDER WITH ROSIE

CIDER WITH ROSIE

Sudbury Dramatic Society at the Quay Theatre

13.05.15



Laurie Lee's elegiac account of his Gloucestershire boyhood, adapted with affectionate fidelity by James Roose Evans, is brought to the Quay by an excellent ensemble.
Directed by Neil Arbon, the company people the little stage with the extended family and village community. A rustic cart brings Mrs Lee and her brood to Bank Cottages – the same carrier's cart carries her simple deal coffin to the graveyard. Furniture is hauled on and off, carefully rearranged. Subtle lighting [Tim Foster] suggests the passing seasons.
In this version, much of the poetry, and the story, is entrusted to the narrator, an older Laurie looking back some forty years. Peter Drew is a compelling presence, bringing the words to life with a gentle passion. His younger self, the boy Loll who starts school, discovers the seaside, sings carols and tastes paradise under the hay wagon, is excellently done by Matthew Byham, equally convincing as the unwilling infant and the innocent who succumbs to the sweet charms of Rosie Burdock. His mother, recalling her days downstairs in the big house, almost missing the bus, collecting china, is Sarah Harvey-Wade, eloquently suggesting the stress of the single parent and her unconditional love for her family, and her husband long disappeared.
Strong support from a huge cast: Sarah Byham, Emma Hewett and Sadie Belsey as the girls, Alex Ray a sparkling presence as little Tony, Linda Dowdall as Granny Trill, combing her bits and consulting Old Moore, Denis Brogan in four fine cameos. And many more.
Sometimes the action might be more fluid – getting off the charabanc at Weston, for instance – and the noisy chairs sometimes threaten to drown out the narration. But there are many memorable scenes – Laurie whistling to bring the company on at the start, with Tony bursting out beaming from behind his mother's skirts – the huddle of carol singers, the girls having their hair done while the boys are in bed, the Babylon moments, the soliloquy with the schoolroom behind, and the moving ending, with young Loll picking up the roses, about to become the poet who has been leading us through his early life. There they are, in the line-up, with Lee's spirit also kept alive by the solemn young fiddler who accompanies the curtain calls.

And in the interval, the lads and lasses from Slad were pressed into service to hand round the food – savoury tarts, sausage rolls, and, less commonly found in the Cotswolds a century ago, delicious parmesan baskets ...

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE

Trinity Methodist at the Civic Theatre

12.05.2015




Forget the Cornish coast and the ruined chapel – curtain up here is on a dusty storeroom in a museum. 21st  century cleaners depart, and a mummy creeps from her sarcophagus as the pirates storm on from a storage crate stage right.
It's a colourful conceit, serving the look of the show rather than the logic of an already improbable plot. But the Policemen are exhibits too, sporting uniforms through the ages,  a Bow Street Runner amongst their ranks. And best of all, the ladies all get to impersonate heroines from history: Earheart the aviatrix rubbing shoulders with Nell Gwynn and Lady Godiva.
Sullivan's music survives intact, with Anton Archer's impressive pit band playing Richard Balcombe's charming reduction, and a lovely Poetry chorale, but Gilbert is slyly updated, with our Home Secretary making the policemen's lot even unhappier, and Climbing Over Rocky Mountain, already a rewrite from the Gods in Thespis,  adapted to suit the Famous Women.
Several seasoned Savoyards in the cast, including David Raynor as an imposing Pirate King, Janet Moore as poor rejected Ruth and Mick Wilson as a drily droll Major General. But what joy to have Frederick and Mabel [a suffragette] played by actors of the right age, two excellent young performers [Theo Perry and Jessica Edom-Carey] who sing beautifully and act with style and wit.
Tony Brett's production has many delightful moments – the chorus in cupboard and crate, a Busby Berkeley Foeman, and a much-used table downstage right. An inspired choice to celebrate 50 years of Trinity, during which time they've brought dozens of Savoy operettas to appreciative Chelmsford audiences.

production photograph by Val Scott

WAY UPSTREAM

WAY UPSTREAM
Chichester Festival Theatre
09.05.2015


Buoyed up, maybe, by the success of Neville's Island – real trees, real island with water deep enough to drown in – Chichester have boldly ventured Way Upstream with Ayckbourn.
Not his best play, remembered chiefly for the water tank which caused the National Theatre so much trouble back in '82. Like Ayckbourn's oeuvre, it starts as a domestic comedy of manners, and ends up as something much darker – and not merely dark, but unrelentingly nasty.
But if it must be refloated, it's hard to imagine it done better than here in the CFT, directed by Nadia Fall. There's an excellent cast, and an incredibly ambitious staging, designed by Ben Stones, with a real Hadforth Bounty moving convincingly around the river, a great forest behind as a backdrop, and retractable riverbanks on either side.
It's set in those distant 80s, so no mobiles, and colleagues address each other as Mr and Mrs. On the cassette player, Bach, James Last, and after the final collapse of civilization, William Byrd for brass. The shadows on the cabin blinds – we never see inside the “floating rabbit hutch” - the fight in the water, the bridges and the rainstorm, all superbly done. Even the strangely surreal ending, in which the only two likeable characters are pursued beyond the limit of navigation to start a new life post Armageddon, is successfully handled.
They are Jill Halfpenny as Emma, and Jason Hughes as hopeless Alistair, the worm who finally turns and brains his tormentor with a can of beans.
This is Jason Durr's Vince, the knight in shining armour turned cuckoo in the nest, a “victim of the system” whose veneer of charm soon wears off to reveal the bully beneath.
Peter Forbes is hilarious as Keith, all bluster and pomposity as the skipper; Sarah Parish is priceless as his less than enthusiastic wife, sunbathing on the tiny deck, flirting with Vince and making a complete fool of herself in an ill-advised drunken reprise of her youthful stage persona.
One simple idea is surprisingly effective amid the technology and the heavy symbolism: between scenes, the actors fast forward in sharp, jerky movements as the music track distorts.




Monday, May 11, 2015

POPE HEAD

POPE HEAD

The Secret Life of Francis Bacon

at the Cramphorn Theatre

07.05.2015








The bad boy of the British art scene in the Fifties and Sixties is brought triumphantly to life, warts and all, in this uncompromising one man show.
The performer, and the writer, is Garry Roost, whose physical appearance is not unlike Bacon's. But it is his insight into the man, his eccentricities and his vulnerability, that makes this portrait so vivid. We follow Francis to Paris in the 30s, London in the Blitz. We see his work develop; interior design, sketches, portraits, lying figures and screaming popes. And a colourful supporting cast – patrons, friends, lovers – is economically suggested with a few careful brush strokes.
A minimal set – a triptych of screens – a soundscape and a subtle score by Matthew Williams and Eddie Gray, who was a friend of the artist.
This unique performance, originally directed by Paul Garnault has been touring Australia, and will be on the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. We're lucky that it called in on Chelmsford on the way.

and for The Public Reviews

Bacon's iconic art is celebrated world-wide; his paintings hang in the best museums, his images are instantly recognisable – think Screaming Pope.
But what do we know of the man, his psyche, his sexuality and his “secret life”?
Garry Roost's intriguing one-man show, somewhere between autobiography, confessional and stream of consciousness, pulls no punches. We see the artist as transvestite, lusting after stable lads, cruising and cottaging, seducing a young burglar who breaks in through the skylight, shoplifting, pickpocketing and running a gambling den. We learn that he was “painfully shy”, but was determined to “live life to the full”. We go with him to Berlin in the 30s, to Paris, and to dinner at the Orwells, where he rubs shoulders with Spender and Giacometti. And in one of the most striking moments, into the nightmare of the Blitz, with Bacon the ARP warden.

The art is not neglected, however. We see him roll up his sleeves as he waits for inspiration. He begins by designing rugs. He is influenced by Poussin and Velasquez, Muybridge and Michelangelo. His work merges the x-ray and the photograph, the inside and the outside, an entire movie compressed in a single frame. He suffers brickbats from the Daily Mail and the Times, he is outraged at being judged “insufficiently surreal”.

The simple setting consists of three pop-up screens, recalling his love of the triptych form.

Roost's physical incarnation of his subject is remarkable: fleshy, outrageous, sweary, pouting and preening, he gives an energetic, expressionistic performance that is sometimes incoherent, sometimes shockingly candid, but never dull for a moment. His face, contorted like putty, recalls the tortured faces in the paintings. Often with the help of the screens, he becomes many of the other characters that people his eventful life. A lawyer who spots his talent early on, Jessie, his childhood nanny and his partner in petty crime, and a succession of partners and “well-built working men”.

He begins his hour with us by recalling his father, veteran of the Boer War, “thrashing the pansy out of him”, and ends with Wilde's sententious advice - “Be yourself – everyone else is already taken ...” It is a totally convincing impersonation, capturing the body language and the mannerisms of the original, the wit, the sarcasm and the temper, but also powerfully suggesting the deeper passions and the unique personality of the artist and the man. “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery,” Bacon once said, and while this superb solo show goes some way to demystify the man, the art is wisely left unseen and sibylline.




this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews